Monday, January 4, 2016

‘The Gifts of the Magi’

It's not too late. Merry 10th day of Christmas (or 11th, depending on how you count it), from The Interpreter's Bible, here on Matthew 2:11:

The hymn “We three kings of Orient are” gives the details with which legend has adorned the well-loved story. Gold, brought by Caspar, can represent our gifts of substance. Livelihood usurps the place of life unless life is rigorously made dedicate to God revealed in Christ. How much of our strife is caused by clutching at things! Abraham Lincoln once said of his two quarreling sons that they were a symbol of the whole world: “I have three English walnuts and each boy wants two.” Trade is now so interlocked—examine a linen collar for proof, with its attendant machinery, materials, finance, export—that it comes a fratricide unless it is first a worship.

Melchior brought frankincense which, because it is a fragrance, can represent our inner treasure of thought and influence. The wise men were the scientists of their time. Is science safe unless it becomes worship? The music that most enthralls us is essentially religious, and our greatest architecture is a prayer in stone. So scientific knowledge must be dedicate. Our keenest thought, even that concerned only for “the truth,” easily becomes a pride or threat; and influence, even that which for popularity is willing to be kind, easily becomes miasmic rather than a fragrance. Thought is worthy only when it is marked by reverence.

Balthazzar brought myrrh. We must be careful not to read our interpretation into the story, for the original intends only that myrrh was precious and therefore a gift fit for the King. But it is almost inevitable and fitting that myrrh, because of its use in embalming, should stand in this instance for our sorrow and suffering. This bitter gift is, however strangely, the hardest for us to give to Christ: we prefer to keep it for its luxury of bitter protest. The reason why sorrow hardens one man and melts another is just that the one man keeps his sorrow selfishly and the other offers it in oblation. Harriet Martineau tells of a joy which only the disappointed can know—the joy of “agreeing with God silently when nobody knows what is in their hearts.” It is worth noting that all three kings brought their best. George Frederick Watts had inscribed on his seal, “The Utmost for the Highest.” This could be the motto written across the matchless story of the magi.

The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII. George Arthur Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1955) 259.

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