Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
January 04, 2015
All Saints American Catholic Church, Vista, CA
Isaiah 60:1-6   Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3;5-6  Matthew 2:1-12
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       It’s hard to talk about gifts at this time of year. All of us are, at this point in time, probably suffering from Christmas Fatigue. We’ve shopped until we dropped, in the stores and online. We’re sick of the crowds, the heavy traffic, the slow web pages, and stores out of stock on what we wanted to buy for our loved ones. Then most of us on Christmas morning exchanged gifts with our family and friends. And on the day after Christmas, many of us have gone back to the same stores to exchange what doesn’t fit, or we don’t like. We’re pretty much gifted-out by the time Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, rolls around. 
As you will recall from hearing the Christmas story, nothing in the Gospels says that Christmas is a time to go shopping so we can exchange gifts.  All of that illustrates how divorced our secular world is from the so-called “true meaning of Christmas.”   On a basic level, Jesus at Christmas is a new beginning, a new program, a new paradigm. That is why we reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation as God’ gift to humanity, a gift that keeps on giving and giving after two thousand years, and for an infinite number of years in the future.  
The Church struggles year after year how to present afresh an appreciation of just how wonderful Jesus is as God’s gift to us. The same is true of everything else that will happen in the Church’s calendar, the same challenge all of us face to keep Jesus alive in us as we live out our Baptismal Covenant, by doing and being the Gospel to the world around us, using our time, talent and treasure as tools to get that done.
Christmas in America represents the consumerist mentality where we chase after material things, seeking happiness. But it is a false happiness, devoid of a spiritual dimension. Our message to the commercial establishment is, “what can you do for me?” Merchants are more than happy to hear that, because they want the consumers to do something for them: spend money.        Unfortunately, the modern secular person looks at going to church in the same way: what can church do for me.  If a church can’t do something for someone, the response is often not go to church, and instead, go to brunch, the mall, or the beach. Simply put, many people in today’s world go to church because they get something out of it; and when they don’t, they stop going.  No wonder many churches have empty seats!
       The Magi, however, had a very different approach. They sought out Jesus. They travelled a long way to see Him. They stopped to inquire with Herod where He might be. Who were the Magi? Scripture tells us only they were “from the East.” One tradition has them as the kings of India, Persia, and Arabia.  Another tradition saw them as astrologers, perhaps of the Zoroastrian religion, which sounds more likely. That’s because the word “Magi” derives from the Persian word “magus”, which refers to the “maguano” caste of priests into which Zoroaster was born. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Astrologers, as we know, prognosticate about the future, and that’s likely what drove them to give the gifts that they gave to the baby Jesus, just as we try to give useful gifts at Christmas. Like the Church, I am sure the Magi, faced a challenge on what they would give to Baby Jesus. However, they did not have the luxury of surfing the Internet or wandering through a store deciding what they would give Jesus. All they  could do was give gifts that came from their heart: gold, for basic sustenance for this world; frankincense, to mask the less desirable odors of life, and myrrh, a preservative of the dead, reminding Jesus and his parents in no uncertain terms that Jesus, being human, would eventually die. Scripture does not record that they received anything in return for what they brought Jesus. Unlike ourselves at Christmas, the visit of the Magi to Jesus was not like how we go to the home of a relative to exchange gifts and leave with gifts for ourselves in exchange for the ones we brought.
What the Magi did receive, however, in return for their material gifts, was a spiritual gift: to be in the real, corporeal presence of God who had become human, to see the face of Baby Jesus, to hear Him cry, to smell the stable in which he was born, and perhaps kiss or touch Him. 
A revelation of God to humankind is called a “theophany.” Theophanies appear throughout scripture. God directly encountered Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, to name just a few.  But this encounter with God was different : the Magi were face to face with God in humanflesh. What could be a better gift, in exchange for earthly things?
When we go to Mass, we encounter the real, physical presence of Jesus, His Body and Blood, in the form of bread and wine. The Eucharist is freely given to us, not as a reward for good behavior or proper beliefs, but as the freely given gifts of God for the people of God.  Hence, we don’t exchange gifts with God like we do among ourselves.  Rather, the grace that we receive in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar calls us to give of ourselves, rather than encounter Mass with a consumer mentality where we focus on what we might get out of it.  The Real Presence of Jesus motivates humanity to give the Church the same things the Magi brought Jesus. They brought Jesus time, talent and treasure, symbolized by Myrrh, Frankincense and Gold.
       Myrrh symbolizes timeas its use in ancient time was to preserve bodies after death. Myrrh reminds of the limited lifespan we have to make a difference in the church and the world. As we get older, we develop an increasing awareness of this idea, particularly when we go to the doctor and learn things about us we would rather not be true. The traditional standard for giving of ourselves to the Church has been the tithe, or tenth. Every week has 168 hours, that’s twenty-four times seven. Of these hours, we spend 56 sleeping, assuming you sleep eight hours a night. That leaves 112 waking hours. Of those remaining hours, let’s assume you work 40 hours a week. Now we have 72 waking hours. What if you give Jesus 7.2 hours a week, that is, ten percent of your free 72 hours a week? Figure about 2-3 hours for traveling to and attending Mass and getting home.  So what can you do with those other four hours that would make Jesus happy? Many things. Talk about your faith with others; maybe you can get them to church.  Get together with other people from inside and outside your parish community to pray and study scripture. Do research and write about ideas related to your faith. You don’t need a theological degree, just a curious and open mind, a warm heart, and the ability and motivation to communicate. Or volunteer at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, or hospitals.  The point is, stop wasting your life watching mindless TV shows, playing video games and aimlessly surfing the Internet, and instead give a large chunk of that spare time to God.  
Frankincense symbolizes the Church’s unique talent in comparison to other human services institutions. Frankincense sanctifies. It makes holy.  It honors what it encounters. When you wave a thurible at someone or something, you are honoring that person or thing. When you sanctify some one or some thing, you are telling everyone that you love that person or thing so much you want her, him or it to be considered holy in God’s sight. That is why we cense the altar, cense the gospel book, and cense all the ministers in the Church, not only the clergy, but the laity as well, who are ministers by virtue of their baptism. While secular human service organizations do an admirable job of meeting human needs for housing, food, health care, and the other necessities of life. But the Church is unique. It has the capacity to impart blessings in God’s name on all those activities. Perhaps the best example is marriage. The County Clerk can marry you, and that’s it. The County Clerk’s ceremony does not include a nuptial blessing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But when you marry in the Church, the Church blesses your relationship in exactly that way. Marriage is a sacrament, embracing not only the outward and visible sign through the physical aspects of being married, but the inward and spiritual grace of a relationship blessed by God.  Frankincense is also about skills. To make frankincense from the sap of the Boswellia tree is a rare skill possessed by few people. To sell the use of incense as a proper aspect of worship often requires considerable homiletic and pastoral skill, as incense is not part of most people’s lives like it used to be. And of course, a skilled thurifer is an asset to any Church that worships in the catholic tradition. Think about what particular skills you have that might help the Church. Some of us know hardware, software and web-page building. Others of us are writers and can produce brochures and other material. Still others of us are musicians, that is, singers, keyboardists, composers and instrumentalists. And there those among us who are knowledgeable in areas related to church, like scripture, theology, and liturgy.  Finally, many of you have the simple gift of your presence, to simple “be there” for someone in distress, to be the presence of Christ in that person’s hour of need. Your simple presence, all by itself, might arouse interest in why you do what you do and attract people to Church.
The unique mission of the Church, carrying on the mission of the Holy Spirit as sanctifier, requires effort and skill sets from all its ministers, laypersons, bishops, priests and deacons. Notice in that string of personages.  I put lay people first. All of you are important to the Church because you were commissioned as important people by virtue of your baptism.  All of you are important, because clergy can’t do everything the Church needs done. If you expect your clergy to do everything, you will soon have some very burned out, tired clergy who will be too fatigued to do what clergy do best, that, is minister sacramentally to the people of God.  We clergy are people, just like you.  We are fragile. We are vulnerable. We need your help, just like you need ours.
       Finally comes the treasure, the Magis’ gift of gold. Many people at a Church are uncomfortable talking about money. It’s somehow “unseemly” or “none of our business.” The Magi did not think that way. They anticipated – correctly – that, among other things, Jesus needed money to help carry out His mission. The honest truth is that a Church, like any institution, needs money to pay its bills to survive. The Magi knew Jesus would have bills to pay so they brought Jesus Gold. The Church belongs to God, acting through all the people of God.  The financial challenge of  a Church communicates God’s message to God’s people to step up and do what needs to be done, whether that be reducing expenses, enhancing the pledge drive, or initiating a capital campaign. I realize not everyone can give huge sums of money to the Church. How much you give is a between you and God as a matter of your conscience. The Magi could afford to give gold, and they did so. Even if you are not a wealthy person, you can help church finances through fund raising activities like rummage or bake sales, car washes, initiating crowd-funding at Internet sites like “Go Fund Me,” buying lottery tickets and putting them in the collection plate along with your money, making arrangements with various merchants that have programs to rebate part of their sales to non-profit organizations, and tithing a tenth of your earthly wealth to the Church in your estate plans.
       As you look at the nativity scene at Baby Jesus, think of how, like the Magi, you might be as generous as they were with their time in their long journey to and from Bethlehem to visit the Holy Family. Think of how generous they were with their talent in selecting the appropriate gifts for the Christ child. And think of how generous they were with their wealth. The star they followed led them to a place where they could give not only material gifts, but the gift of themselves to be with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Let that same star shine in yourlife, leading you to give what you can for the benefit of the work of Jesus, in worship, prayer, and service to others, as we do the Gospel in the world beyond, the walls of the Church. AMEN.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *