The Gift of the Magi
By Charles Rush
December 18, 2005
Lk. 2: 1-7
(mp3, 7Mb) ]
me members of the congregation and our staff all thought a word on keeping Christmas simple might be in order this year. No sooner had we put the final touches on the service than the Wall Street Journal ran a story on “Downsizing Christmas-Nice Idea, Difficult to Execute”.
interviewed one Robin Look, a 47 year old, mother of three, who is serving as
the P.T.A. president this year in Dallas, where she
lives, in addition to her job as a human-relations
director at a law firm… Human relations director at a law office – I wonder
what she really does? Teach people how to offer others a hug just after they
bitten someone’s head off.
Look says she is “tired of the clutter and tired of all the time things take”
and who isn’t? The article goes on to say that in years past she felt the need
to redecorate her entire house right down to changing the kitchen clock to one
of those kitsch clocks of Santa that uses his arms to point to the hour and
minute. This year she has decided to lose the clock… Let me just say, a very
wise move, Mrs. Look. And she is prepared to lose about half of the other
decorations- and here one can only speculate what will be left in the attic…
the neon outline of Frosty the Snowman, a wind up Santa swinging a golf club, a
collection of Elves in riding chaps and cowboy boots that play a tape of Willie
Nelson singing “I’ll be home for Christmas”. Whatever it is, trust me, she can
live without it…
Look is planning on giving her children a check for Christmas with a single inexpensive wrapped
gift for each. As for relatives, friends, and colleagues, she is donating small
amounts of money in their name to charity.
says Mrs. Look, “Call me back closer to the holidays… I might chicken out.”
And that is where the Sharper Image and J Crew comes in on Dec. 21- as Mrs.
Look runs up $2,350 during a long but very efficient lunch- on new jammies and some very interesting unique crap for the
family that has everything already.
also interviewed Iris Krasnow, an author in the
metro-Washington, who is the mother of 4. Mrs. Krasnow
reports that her teenage daughter has begun complaining that she doesn’t hand
make all the holiday decorations, cards, and delicacies. The author and Mother
of 4 reports this with furrowed brow. Said her uncompromising teen, as only a daughter can say to her
mother, “I thought you were from the Midwest?” The
direction of guilt is now omni-generational.
Krasnow reports that she has let go of one of the
cherished Christmas traditions- the holiday card with the family newsletter.
She has decided to send it out when she gets around to it… usually these days
sometime in early June. We get a couple of those cards every year… but none of
them come from Summit, New
scriptures this morning and our theme music lift up the virtue of simplicity
and I think there is a place for that in the Christmas season, remembering the
simple grace that radiated out of a barn in a lowly rural village on the back
side of civilization 2000 years ago.
we also need to be realistic about why it is so challenging to be simple. It is
true, as many Minister and Editorial writer will point out in the next couple
of weeks, that the season is a bombast of commercial
marketing that secularizes and materializes the season.
the fact of the matter is that our end of the year marketing campaign is simply
our contribution to what is probably one of the oldest spiritual holidays of
culinary/alcoholic/sensual excess in human civilization.
the ancient world, the entire year was marked by the changing of the seasons
and each had it’s own particular mystery. As far as we
can tell, every ancient civilization had a special celebration that fell for an
extended period of time after the Winter solstice, marking the shortest day of
the year. It was the end of the year, so to speak, and it was filled with a
certain hope that from here on out each day would get a little bit longer until
the blessed season of growth would finally return. It was also the beginning of
Winter and a celebration of domicile and hospitality.
celebration was to the god Saturn, the god of sowing who gives plentifully from
the earth. Saturn was married to Ops, the goddess of Mother Earth. Saturn was
always depicted as fat, often with a cornucopia of fruit around his head.
celebration lasted a week, and basically everyone had off from work, and
returned to be with their extended families. There was a ritual that people
followed in their homes. They took a bucket of earth, a memorial of the good
earth that provides for us. Each of the family members lit candles, repeating
prayers to Saturn, asking for a blessing of the crops for the coming year. Then
they planted the candles in the urn full of earth. Then they took a handful of
the precious seed corn for the spring planting was laid on the altar and
prayers were said. In the middle of the room, they laid a chest that was made
to seem empty for the children before the beginning of the ritual. By the end
of it, the chest was opened and it was found to be full of coins and cookies
that were distributed, gifts from the god of plenty, Saturn.
the ritual was over, everyone retired to another room for the banquet feast.
The Romans wore special dress down robes for the week, including, I might add,
little caps pretty much like the one that Santa wears. And what a feast it was.
They ate the best meal, served with the best wine, replete with special
delicacies and special deserts, laughter and friendship. And they got up and did
it again for 7 days.
the meal was to the god of plenty, the week long feast, plenty of food and
plenty of wine that led to plenty of amour… Plenty, plenty,
plenty. I mention this because there seems to be something deeply
ingrained in the human spiritual psyche that needs a mid-winter indulgence in
food, wine, and sensuality that been folded into the year from before the mists
of recorded history. This does not excuse but it may help explain certain odd
behaviors you will witness at the Christmas party at work… or with your Uncle
there is a dimension of excess built into the Winter Solstice celebration that
was probably a primal indulgence many generations ago that stores up extra fat
in preparation for a long season of scarcity in late winter. And since we no
longer have a season of scarcity, our excess is… well, simply excessive.
you can understand why the early Christians chose this time of year to
celebrate the birth of Christ. Not only were the early Romans too busy to
notice them (or persecute them), it was already a season of gift-giving and the
early Christians wanted to lift up the simple but profound gift of the birth of
the Christ. Through the Christ, we were given the fullest gift of God’s love
for us and shown the example of how God wants us to live in order to find
spiritual fulfillment. And that gift transcends and orders all of our material
gifts. And it still can.
gifts is such a wonderful thing, especially the face of surprising joy from
children. Last year, we asked the homeless guys we serve in lower Manhattan what they
wanted for Christmas. You all bought them a bunch of those gifts. Our confirmands passed them out on the street just before
were at Battery Park, passing out sandwiches, soup and blankets. The guys were
all crowded around the Bridges truck. One of our confirmands
said, “Is a Larry Washington here?”
of the homeless guys said, “Yeah that’s me.”
confirmand said, “I have something for you.” And they
walked together to a park bench. Larry was confused, having forgotten that
several weeks ago he had filled out a request for a Christmas present. He took
this present sat down, indredulous, and opened it.
Inside were a pair of insulated boots, size 14 ˝ double E. His face grew wide
and he said, “I can’t believe it.” Suddenly he was a little boy again… still
housed in a 6’5” frame of 315 lbs.. It was a wonderful
moment. And there is a spiritual dimension to our gift-giving that fills others
with grace and lifts them up. That is wonderful.
all gift-giving is that effective. We have spiritually flat years. Usually for
most all of us here, who give great stuff, our
spiritually flat years are times that we give in a careless manner or in an
indulgent manner or both.
may be even more an issue for the Father’s amongst us- just careless or
indulgent. For most of us, it gets started in the workplace. Too many of us are
prone to think of our bonuses at the end of the year- or our salaries- as a
kind of pay off. It is supposed to make up for the fact that we have to endure
a lot of ugliness at our jobs. It makes up for the fact that we have spent too
much time at work getting to the place where we can get these big bonuses and
that over the years, we just don’t have good balance in our lives. It is
supposed to make up for the fact that we don’t really care about our firm or
its mission and that we are largely only doing what we are doing because it
pays so well, and we are resentful of the fact that the best years of our
lives, the best of our talents are being sucked up doing things that are not
intrinsically worth while… And, and, dammit they owe
our spiritually flat seasons, we spend too much time fantasizing about what we
would do if we could just get to the place where we could cash out and get out.
We think too much about what life would be like without the hours of commuting,
sitting in airports that all look the same, and just
have our time, our thing, our gig. We think like that because we feel like we
are in spiritual purgatory… It is spiritually a very flat season,
internally we are managing some low grade depression and anger. But…. We got this Mondo
Check. Mondo with a capital M.
too often, instead of dealing with this resentment and flatness, we just
transfer it to our families. We allow our family Christmas time to become
shaped and shaded by our vocational ethos. We are a little more sophisticated
than the car commercials that are running this season but not much.
say, by our actions, in effect, “Honey, I know that I’ve been gone too much; I
know that I’ve been crabby, anxious and really just a pain to live with much of
the year. Honey, I know that I have really been paying attention to you or
really listening to you. I know that you are not really feeling fulfilled… So,
here, have a Jaguar… because I really do love you… but this is the best
I can do for now.”
by Damn, that Jaguar gig works pretty well for a while. People really will
think to themselves, “I’m not all that satisfied with my life right now, but I
look good going to the grocery store.”
I wonder, though, what the season would look like, if we really let our Higher
Spiritual Selves really lead rather than follow. What if your Higher Spiritual
Selves structured our giving?
still of families, what our loved ones really want is our Higher Spiritual
Selves. They want a connection. They want us to love them. They don’t want to
be indulged and empty or flat.
we just started in our families, I wonder what would happen if this season, we
all spent some time- when you are riding to work or when you are pedaling that
exercise bike- if we all spent some time, thinking of something kind that you
could do for your spouse. Let’s just stay with Father’s for a moment. What
could you do for her? Not something material, but what is it that she needs…
really needs… especially from you? What is it? How could you give her that?
just don’t ask that question enough. I had a conversation with a couple that we
have known for twenty something years. Their relationship, I think they would
probably agree, has plateaued at some point. We were
talking about the morning and I was telling a story about fetching Kate her
morning coffee. This woman says, “My husband hasn’t brought me coffee in bed in
don’t ask that question enough. And we wonder why we get to these places when
our marriages have slowly atrophied and truncated into a joyless contest of
the spiritual gift-giving realm, imagine what you could do for her that would make
her a better person? What could you do for her that would allow her to
bloom? How can you fulfill her?
if that was your mission in this Christmas season? Don’t worry about you. Don’t
get defensive about ceding some control. Develop enough inner spiritual
strength to become vulnerable. What if you started thinking of yourself as the
one who blooms others, the one who fulfills others? What if you let your
Spiritual self lead? What if you gave other people gifts that were spiritually
nutritious? That is what they want, they want you to bloom them and you can do
once you get focused on that, the material gifts will be less careless and more
specific. You won’t indulge because you aren’t papering over. And the material
gifts you give will be more meaningful because they are connected to blooming
and fulfillment. And you unleash the beginning fruit of harmony that leads to
real peace, the peace that St. John reports
Jesus to have said, that is not of this world but the real deal.
used one example this morning because you can’t change over night. Start small,
start centrally, but give one spiritual gift well. How can you bloom them?
Think it out and come back to it regularly. It will radiate out from there. And
it will not be easy, it will not be without risk; you will sometimes have fun
poked at you for your efforts. Other times, it will make you open up in ways
you do not want to. But… you will not regret it.
if right now, you are thinking that you are in for it over the lunch table today,
I trust you will take some consolation in knowing that… so am I. May simple
grace attend your gifts this season. Amen.
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