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Sunday, December 28, 2008

“On entering the house, the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

“SOUL-SURFING” – January 6, 2008
The Epiphany of the Lord
(Matthew 2:1-12)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

While it’s the time of year for gift-giving and feasting, holiday time also affords families the opportunity to re-tell, often with great hilarity, those tales that, passed from generation to generation, become treasured ancestral legend. My religious family, the Congregation of Holy Cross, has its own very special holiday tales, and I share with you one with particular application to the Epiphany, the feast we celebrate today.

Some years back, when the man we’ll call Father Gilligan was a young priest, he happened to be shopping just after Christmas in a New England religious goods store for some necessary church supplies, hosts, candles, incense, that sort of thing. While he’d not intended at all to buy any more than was already on his shopping list, the salesperson, charmer that she was, tempted the young priest to have a look at the after-Christmas stock of discounted merchandise lavishly displayed on a table near the front door. Thinking only to appease what was approaching harassment, he lingered for a moment at the table, pretending to admire the goods. But the temptress was right at his side, insisting he pay particular attention to a hand carved, finely detailed 20-piece nativity set imported from Germany. Caught by the beauty of the set, Father Gilligan did have to admit that he’d really been interested months before in acquiring just such a nativity set for his study. But pre-Christmas prices were so prohibitive that he just forgot all about it. Now, though, with the seductress beside him, and with the original price slashed by 50%, he was lost. He made the purchase.

Returning to his parish, he deposited in the church sacristy the items he had originally intended to purchase. Then he retrieved the large box containing the nativity set, each piece having been carefully wrapped in many-layered tissue by the salesperson. With Christmas already over, it made no sense to unwrap each piece for display this year, so Fr. Gilligan climbed the attic stairs to stow away his treasure until next year’s Christmas made its approach.

Eleven months later, he again climbed the attic stairs to retrieve the coveted box, humming “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as he descended to his study with what he knew was an absolute steal at 50% off. With a brandied eggnog at his side, Fr. Gilligan lovingly unwrapped each of the 20 pieces of the hand carved, finely detailed nativity set imported from Germany. Admiring each piece anew as tissue revealed its treasure, he carefully arranged each figurine about the straw-filled wooden manger. The volume of the hummed carols increased as brandied eggnog lubricated his vocal cords. The carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus were placed just so upon the straw. Next unwrapped was a herd of cows, sheep and goats, followed by a cadre of shepherds placed in watch over them. Lastly came the three kings. Knowing these figurines to be most exquisitely ornamented, Fr. Gilligan tossed the last of the brandied eggnog down his gullet and broke into a loud rendition of “We Three Kings.” Gently lifting a tissue shrouded lump from the box, Melchior was soon revealed in the unwrapping. Bleary eyes next reached way down into the near empty box and brought forth another king, this one identified as Caspar. One king to go and we’re done, the priest thought. But the final retrieval of his 50% off purchase revealed a now empty box. Where was Balthasar? There are supposed to be three kings! Where the heck is Balthasar?

An angry call to the religious goods store next morning revealed a sobering truth. “I’m sorry, Father, but sale items are non refundable and non-returnable. The woman who sold you the set no longer works here, but I’m guessing she didn’t tell you that such an exquisite set was marked down 50% because it was missing a piece. But you have yourself a merry Christmas anyway!”

In the gospel passage we hear today, the story of those three gift-bearers begins. By tradition known as Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior, they are variously referred to as kings, magi or wise men. “On entering the house, the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11) The point of today’s feast is that these men traveled a great distance, following the lead of Bethlehem’s star, in search of the newborn Jesus, he who was the savior not only of the Jewish population surrounding Bethlehem, but, indeed, of the whole world. With the arrival of the three kings to pay him homage, we find the revelation that Jesus has come for the whole world, for all men and women of every time and place.

This very Epiphany day, Fr. Gilligan is, no doubt, sitting in his study, brandied eggnog in hand as he hums “We Three Kings.” He’s long recovered from the shock of having only two kings in his nativity set. On Christmases of late, he even regales friends with a fictional version of his mistaken purchase of years earlier. “Yeah,” he laughs to the sloshing of eggnog, “I purposely left one of the kings in the box up in the attic just to remind myself that Jesus wants a whole lot more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. He wants ME! Jesus wants the gift that only I can give. And he’s in no rush. He knows it’s a long trek to Bethlehem from here, but I get a few stops closer each day, and with the passing of each day my gift seems to get just a bit more precious.” And with that, old Fr. Gilligan tosses back the rest of the brandied eggnog to fortify his journey to Jesus.

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