As we race around shopping and buying Christmas gifts for the people we love, the Salvation Army bell-ringers seem an appropriate accompaniment. The Holy Family was poor, and enduring so much bad luck, that they had to find shelter in a stable for the birth of the Christ Child. It is not hard to imagine the fear that Mary must have felt as she labored to bring this baby into the world. Where were they to go from here?
And then the skies were filled with the heavenly host singing songs of joy, shepherds arrived to see what was going on, and finally three wise men arrived bearing rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is those wise men who gave birth to the idea that all who celebrate the miraculous birth, should do so with gifts. Ever since, the world of myth and story tell of the desire to give a gift, and which gifts were most valued.
There is the story of the poor girl who wanted to bring a gift to the Christ Child, but had nothing to give. She searched for wildflowers, but it was the wrong season. Her tears fell on the snow and the first Christmas roses, hellebores, bloomed to make a bouquet she could carry to the stable.
Another little girl also wept because she had no gift to bring. She gathered what dried grasses she could to make a kind of bouquet, but when she laid them by the manger they were instantly transformed into brilliant poinsettias.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is about why the bells rang on Christmas. Two poor brothers were on the way through the snowy night to bring their small gift to church, a church that had bells that did not ring on Christmas unless a great and especially valuable gift was given. The bells had not rung for many years. The two boys trudged along as fast as they could until they came across an old woman collapsed in the snow. One boy left to get help, but before he returned to his brother he slipped into the church as the great congregation was leaving, disappointed that the bells remained mute even after the king had left his jeweled crow. The boy crept unnoticed up to the altar to leave his small coin and then, suddenly, the bells began to chime, but no one knew why because the boy had already left to return to his brother and bring help to the old lady.
A more modern story by O. Henry is about the poor young couple, each of whom gave up their dearest possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other. All of these gifts were valuable, not because of their intrinsic worth, but because they were given out of love. Something to remember as we stand in front of the bright and shiny wealth of the department stores.
We might console ourselves with the thought that the three wise men did not show much wisdom in their choice of gifts, except possibly the one who brought gold to the poor family. Those who pay attention to symbols might say that we don’t really know what the wise men brought, but gold is a gift appropriate to a king, frankincense, a fragrant resin from a tree, is symbolic of a priesthood, and myrrh, another tree resin, is also used in embalming. These three items are symbolic of Christ’s life, but one cannot help wondering what Mary and Joseph thought as they opened what I imagine was a jeweled gift casket to find an embalming agent.
Still, all three gifts were intrinsically valuable, and that value was going to be very important to the Holy Family as they learned that Herod had ordered the death of all male infants.
An angel warned Joseph that he should not return home and so they fled, with that noble donkey, for Egypt. The poor family had not planned an extended time away from home and Joseph’s livelihood. Surely the gold was welcome and then I imagine the frankincense and myrrh were sold to provide them with a home in faraway Egypt.
During their flight to Egypt legends are told about the plants who gave their own gifts of service to the family. Mary had to wash the Christ Child’s clothes. Unlike other plants, the rosemary allowed her to hang them on her branches. Ever since the rosemary’s flowers are as blue as Mary’s robe. At one point, with Herod’s soldiers drawing near, the holly allowed the Holy Family to hide within its branches. It immediately grew lush and green with prickly foliage. How can you measure the value of these gifts, of help with every day tasks, or the gift of safety in danger?
Now as we hurry to complete our Christmas shopping, and grocery shopping so that we can bake special treats and a feast for gathering family and friends, we hear the Christmas bells of the Salvation Army on the street, and the bells of our own churches. I think they are asking – what valuable gift have I forgotten? What do you hear when you hear the Christmas bells?
Between the Rows December 22, 2012