Matthew 2:1-12 – The Epiphany of the Lord – for January 6, 2013
“…wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1)
Seven years ago, I wondered if the priest burned frankincense or myrrh for the incense.
I didn’t wonder why I was there watching that priest. There being a place I did not want to be. There being a time of grief with unfathomable sorrow. There being an infant’s memorial service, occurring only two days after Christmas.
A parent experiencing the death of a child is as unfair as it gets and few can stand with them and say, “I understand what you are going through.”
The memorial service was held in the Catholic Church where the child’s parents were members. I was not there to help lead the service, but to support the grieving family with my presence. The grandparents were my friends and I couldn’t not be with them.
And so I watched, and so I also felt disoriented.
Now, 500 and more years after Martin Luther’s reformation, and the separation between the Catholic and the protesting—or Protestant—church, clear differences remain in how the two branches of Christianity worship.
The use of incense is one small difference.
At a key point in the mass, the priest lighted a censer (the metal container where the incense is burned) to ritualistically disperse the scent.
How strange for this Protestant nose to be filled with the distinctive, room-filling odor. The smell stays with you. And that, I assume, is part of its purpose, part of its sensual, inexplicable power.
In all of our inadequate ways to discern where the Holy One fits in the human times of tremendous hope or terrible sorrow, using the sense of smell has its role.
We humans are sensual creatures. We respond to what we see, hear, feel and smell. Yes, we Protestants may shake our heads in amusement about the Catholics’ peculiar use of “bells and smells” in their worship, but those ancient rituals can connect to some of our needs.
The Wise Men gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were the oddest of gifts, and yet the truest of symbols. Gold was for royalty. Priests used frankincense in worship. Myrrh was often the spiced oil of choice for embalming. As most Biblical scholars will kindly note, the Magi’s gifts were harbingers of the future life of Jesus: royalty, the king of kings; the priest, the one who sacrifices; the one on the cross and in the tomb, and yet death is overcome. The literal-leaning believer will say the gifts were factual, obvious prophetic predictions for Jesus’ future. Another believer—as I am—who views the birth stories of Jesus as more “metaphorical history,” will interpret the Magi’s symbolic gifts as a literary way to understand the early Christian community’s view of the Nazarene’s life.
But when attending an infant’s memorial service, who cares about literal versus literary quibbling?
Yes, my Protestant nose was tweaked and tickled by the unfamiliar incense. When communion was shared and the priest announced the bread and cup were only for practicing Catholics—and I could not participate—I felt the outsider.
But that smell lingered, fragrant and elusive. I suppose we’re more impressed by the gold given to the child. Aren’t we? That’s the only gift that seemed valuable, then or now. Who wouldn’t focus on the shiny yellow metallic element and completely ignore the dried sap from the Boswellia florabunda genus of trees? Who wouldn’t prefer the metal you can make into coins or jewelry or stack in Fort Knox rather than something mostly used for “smells and bells?”
However, all the gifts were and are inadequate. Even as I believe the Magi were a wondrous literary creation, one jewel in the grand Christmas myth’s crown, I can imagine the travelers from the east arriving to honor the child. They dusted off their robes . . . and immediately offered apologies.
“The gifts are useless,” one mutters.
“Mere gold,” another whispers, unable to make eye contact with Joseph.
“We’re embarrassed, but this spice is all we had,” the third says, a bit too loudly.
All the Magi are so sorry, sorry, sorry. Still, they give the gifts, heads bowed, finally silent.
There is this you see, for those of us who know the fullness of the story: Would Joseph and Mary trade all the gold and spices in the world for the long and healthy life of their newborn child?
You know the answer. You bet they would.
Things don’t matter. People do.
The smell lingers in my memory. We can’t understand mortality. We are crushed by a hurricane or earthquake’s landscape of destruction. We are staggered by the massacre of Connecticut children in a school or Norwegian teens on an island. What if next year’s headlines are worse?
We are stunned by the solitary loss of a tiny, fragile life. A child only a few days old, now gone for a parent’s lifetime. And so the priest, as in times of long ago, does something foolish. Incense is burned, thin smoke momentarily swirls in the sanctuary, and we humans know we have no answers. But we have hope. We have each other. If frankincense was the symbol for the priestly actions, and a gift given for the child of Bethlehem, we are invited to remember—in the worst times of our lives—that hope does overcome hurt, that healing is possible even for we who will always be wounded.
Things don’t matter. People do.
Image . . . Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. 1500. Tempera on panel. 108 x 173 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. (Image from here.)