(…continued) In Matthew 2:11 we read that the wise men brought expensive gifts to the baby Jesus– gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is where the tradition of gift giving at Christmas comes from. This giving of gifts gets way over done these days, but the tradition itself goes all the way back to that very first Christmas.
Then, right after Christmas, all over the world, another Christmas tradition is carried out; that is, the tradition of returning those Christmas gifts to the store in order to get the cash to get what you really want or need. Did you ever wonder where that tradition got started?
I think there is a good chance that that tradition also goes back to the very first Christmas. I think Mary and Joseph probably took that gold, frankincense and myrrh back to the store, (or back to wherever they could), in order to get the cash, which is what they really needed. Think about it. Mary and Joseph did not have much money. We know this from the description of the sacrifice they offered at the temple when they went there after Jesus was born. Luke 2:24 says they offered what the Law required, “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” That was a poor man’s offering. Those who were not poor were required by Temple Law to offer a more expensive sacrifice, such as a lamb or a calf. But the poor were allowed to get by with a couple of birds. So Mary and Joseph were indeed poor. They were already forced to make the journey to Bethlehem, and then, as now, traveling takes money. There is the expense of being on the road, along with the loss of time at work. Just to get to Bethlehem was probably a financial hardship for Mary and Joseph.
Then came the warning to flee to Egypt. This meant more time and expense on the road, more time away from work, uncertain job prospects when they got to the strange land, a new baby to take care of, and no idea of when they would be able to return. It would be like a young couple today, borrowing money for a little weekend getaway to the lake, and then once there, being told they could not go home, but had to fly to Europe and live there for a few years. How would Mary and Joseph have managed the flight to Egypt as refugees?
You can’t eat gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They are, to be sure, gifts that bestow a high honor on the one to whom they are given, and that in itself is an important part of the story as a testimony to who Jesus was. He was born to be King of the whole world, even the distant nations, symbolized by the arrival of the wise men from the Far East and their costly gifts. But those gifts were items of luxury for the wealthy only. They had no practical value, and would be of little help to someone who was desperately poor– unless the costly items could be sold, and the money used to buy food and pay for another journey. I do think that Mary and Joseph returned, or perhaps in that setting, sold the gifts at a village market, and used the money to survive their desperate financial difficulties.
This is only speculation, of course, but it is a fact that Mary and Joseph were poor. We can be certain of that from the Bible account. This is yet another reason to be amazed at the way God chose to be born into this world– not into wealth or privilege, but into poverty and danger. We can wonder why God allows bad things to happen to us, even when we do not seem to deserve it; but we must admit that when God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he left himself open to the same dangers, troubles, irritations, and disappointments that we all must face. You can randomly open the Gospels to any page, and you will find Jesus in the midst of trouble or disappointment, conflict, or agony. We find this from the very beginning in the difficulties surrounding his birth and first few years. And we most certainly find this at the end of the story, as Jesus is arrested tortured and executed in one of the most painful ways ever devised. And there is trouble for Jesus on every page between the beginning and the end. There are conflicts with religious leaders; there is the unreliability of the crowds, supporting him and then abandoning him; there is the rejection of Jesus by the people in his own hometown; and, there is disloyalty, disappointment and misunderstanding even by those closest to him. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah had foretold that the Messiah would be a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” and he certainly was.
Yes, we also get our share of troubles, sooner or later, or all the time. The sorrows and troubles are not doled out with mathematical precision and equality, but they do come. The old hymn-writer was right when he called this world a “vale of tears.” That is how it is in this world, our home– the only home we know so far. It can also be a wonderful home, but oftentimes it is not.
Jesus was born into our world and our home, in order to show us the way to his most perfect heavenly home. Christmas is indeed all about going home.
Isaiah 53:3a — He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
Matthew 2:11 — On coming to the house, (the Magi) saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Luke 2:22…24 — When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took (Jesus) to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Almighty and most merciful God,
we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget:
the homeless and the destitute,
the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them.
Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy.
Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer