CAROL #259 “We Three Kings”
HOMILY, part one: Gold
You all know The Golden Rule: “whoever has the gold makes the rules.” No, wait. That’s not right. It’s “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
We speak of The Golden Rule as a wisdom teaching found in all faith traditions. It can be found in all the ethical and moral literature preserved from ancient Egypt and India, Persia and Greece, to multiple statements in each of the living religious traditions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Confucian, Taoist, Wiccan, Humanist, Existentialist, even Scientologist. And gold is an apt symbol for such a teaching. Gold shines, and doesn’t tarnish. That quality makes it precious, valuable. Chemists call a metal like gold that resists corrosion and oxidation, “noble.” They also call it “inert” and “unreactive.” These are qualities of ideals: they do not quite connect to realities we experience within or about us. They might be present, and very close – a gold ring, or a filling – but an ideal even so close remains apart, inert, unreactive, noble. However close to our hearts, our ideals always shine afar.
“Gold I bring to crown him again,” says Gaspar. Again? He was just born!
That’s what we do with ideals and Golden Rules: we crown them again, keep them shining, lift them high. We will never be perfect enough to embody them fully or practice them flawlessly. But they shine, and we follow.
*CAROL #253 “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
HOMILY, part two: Frankincense
As I talk about the two resin gifts, Katie will invite you to experience these resins. There will be samples of the resin itself for you to touch and feel, and there will be a cup with cotton soaked in essential oil from that resin. So get ready now to experience frankincense.
There is a tradition about the three kings, that Gaspar bringing the gold was old, that Melchior bringing the frankincense was middle-aged, and Balthazar bringing the myrrh was young. Their traditional ages are 60, 40, and 20. This tradition about their ages suggests the nature of wisdom: that it is gained lifelong through lived experience, and that its gifts are different at different stages of life.
There are different traditions about where the kings came from. In one, old Gaspar is from India, Melchior is from Persia, and young Balthazar is from Babylon. These locations – India, Persia, and Babylon – are connected to the idea that they were not kings at all but scholars, wise men. Alternatively, old Gaspar is from Tarsus in modern Turkey, Melchior is from Arabia, and young Balthazar is from what is now Yemen, or else across the Red Sea in Ethiopia. These locations are connected to the gifts: Tarsus was a trading center and saw a lot of gold, and the plants whose resins make frankincense and myrrh came from Arabia and from Yemen and Ethiopia. In fact, all three gifts can be found in or near Ethiopia, linking them in legend to the Queen of Sheba and thus back to Solomon, symbol of both kingship and wisdom. So these layers of symbol fold back on one another, pointing to what it feels like to strive after ideals and Golden Rules: we never embody them fully nor practice them flawlessly, but we consent to govern ourselves by them, and in so doing learn and grow in wisdom.
Frankincense represents the striving after whatever casts light on our world and our way toward truth and meaning, the hope of becoming our best selves and of being together a beloved community. It is associated traditionally with prayer, because it was and still is widely used in religious services and spiritual practices. We follow the light of hope and experience wherever it goes, to embody and practice the wisdom we know as best we can.
*CAROL #237 “The First Nowell”
HOMILY, part three: Myrrh
Katie will now share samples of myrrh: again, pieces of myrrh resin, and a cup with cotton soaked in essential oil of myrrh.
All three of the gifts were precious for different reasons. Gold was noble, frankincense was used in the worship practice of every faith that had access to it, and myrrh was used as a medicine and in burial practices. They all had big markets. There was money to be made trading each of them.
Myrrh’s medicinal use was as an antiseptic and analgesic – to clean wounds and relieve pain. While gold is associated with kingship and frankincense with priesthood, myrrh is associated with healing. Myrrh, with its bitter perfume, represents our learning of wisdom by hard experience. When we find a Golden Rule, we are dazzled by its beauty. When we scent our lives with sweet-smelling hope, we are inspired to be our best. And when we take the bitterness of life as a medicine, it opens our depths. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying – the gloom of our lives tests the sweetness of our ideals and the luster of our habits. Our encounter with bitterness – with suffering and disappointment, failure and imperfection, injustice and evil – refines our gold and flavors our hopes. In Christian traditions that still use incense, frankincense and myrrh are blended and burnt together, sweet with bitter, symbolizing the blend of hope and healing essential to faithful living.
The Golden Rule is an ideal. The Resin Rules – lifelong hope and lifelong learning – describe the path toward such an ideal, the Way to follow a star. And the path, the Way, is here, now, in our own town. The stars pass silently above, while here among us truth and wisdom burn within and between, waiting to shine in our streets by acts of mercy, works of justice, deeds of kindness, and presence of love. The wonder and the promise of this season are here, with us, all year round, in this precious place, our town, our home.
*CAROL #246 “O Little Town of Bethlehem”