Bearing Gifts Into Advent

By Rev. Dr. Daniel Cochran

Each winter, on Christmas Eve, the small church in which I grew up held an elaborate Nativity pageant. I remember the year that I was invited to emerge from the flock of sheep to serve as one of the three distinguished magi. The pageant was cheating a bit, of course, bringing the story of the magi forward in liturgical time from Epiphany to Christmas Eve. Given their conversation with King Herod, the magi may not have arrived at their destination until two years after the birth of Jesus. They had a long road to travel!

Today, I encourage my children to appreciate this journey by marking the gradual progress of the intrepid magi. We display a wooden nativity on our kitchen table, but we initially place the magi as far away as possible—in an upstairs bedroom. Each Sunday leading up to Epiphany, my kids move the magi closer to their destination. This fun exercise helps communicate the story of the magi and conveys something about our journey as disciples.

Just as the magi did not suddenly appear at the manger, we Methodists do not magically emerge as perfect disciples of Christ. Rather, discipleship is a journey toward cultivating a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.” Our hope, John Wesley wrote, is to have “the mind of Christ and walk as he walked.” Out of gratitude for God’s gift in Christ, we find ourselves bearing gifts of our own to give back to God.

The magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are often understood as metaphors for the gifts that we carry as disciples. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) compared the magi’s gold to wisdom. From Psalm 111 we are reminded that wisdom is “fear of the Lord,” an ancient phrase that means respect, awe, and wonder.
In other words, true wisdom is about knowing who God is and who we are in relation to God. Cultivating this wisdom not only challenges us to put our priorities in perspective but also provides us great comfort and assurance as we bump along the road of life, hitting the odd pothole here and there.
Gregory preached that the gift of frankincense symbolizes prayer, and so we should faithfully offer prayers to God for each other, the world, and ourselves. But there is more to a life of prayer than the minutes that we set aside to converse with and listen to God. The apostle Paul advises us to “pray without ceasing,” meaning that we should lift up our entire lives as an offering to God. What we say and do should reflect God’s love, mercy, and grace. 

As a perfume and an ointment used for burial, myrrh theologically links the nativity to the crucifixion and resurrection. For Gregory, however, myrrh was also a metaphor for resilience in the face of the many temptations that might lure us away from the road of discipleship. The magi resist such temptations when they reject Herod’s reward and choose a different path home than the one that would bring them back to the jealousy, fear, and death that Herod embodies (Mt. 2:12). 

Disciples of Christ are called to be such radical examples of God’s love in the world, resisting possessions and politics that ultimately separate us from our neighbor and from God.

Bearing these gifts is a full-time calling, but it’s here at Grace UMC that we find the fuel to continue along The Way. Joining small groups dedicated to faith formation encourages us to grow in wisdom; worshipping together reminds us to pray often and fervently; participating in missions challenges us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Wisdom (gold), prayer (frankincense), and resilience (myrrh), are not always highly valued in our world, but bearing these gifts into Advent and throughout our lives as disciples brings us closer to Christ where, like the magi, we will find ourselves “overwhelmed with joy,” (Mt. 2:10). Let’s journey this road together.