Three “Useless” Gifts

Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany.

Growing up I did a lot of my Christmas shopping at the hardware store. That’s because I did a lot of my Christmas shopping with my dad. And my dad lived by a pretty simple philosophy: anything worth buying can be bought at the hardware store. This meant that my mom ended up with a lot of useful Christmas gifts. Some of my gifts to her were more meaningful, like the Christmas ornaments I made in school; but many were more practical. For example, my mom was, and still is, a great baker and cook. And so, one my favorite things to give her was a new spatula. I realize now that I was basically telling her to keep making delicious things for me, but of course my mom didn’t take it that way. She loved the gift because she knew that it meant that I loved her. Even if it was more practical in nature, the gift still had a great deal of meaning attached to it.

Some gifts are more meaningful, like Christmas ornaments you make in school, some are more practical, like spatulas. But the best gifts, even the more practical ones, are ones that also have a great deal of meaning attached to them. That way, even if the gift breaks, is lost, or is no longer of practical use, the meaning behind the gift—and therefore the heart of the gift—remains.

This is the nature of the gifts which the wise men gave Jesus in our gospel today. They didn’t give these gifts for any practical purpose. They didn’t include an instruction manual with them, nor did they tell Mary how to use them. And nowhere in the gospels does it suggest that Jesus, His family, or His friends use these gifts for any purpose. The gold could have been used to make a crown, but when Jesus ascended His kingly thrown, He wore a crown of thorns. The frankincense could have been burned in the temple, but Jesus was not from a priestly family. The myrrh could have been used to anoint Jesus’ body in order to preserve it after His death, but when the women go to do that very thing in the gospel of Mark, they discover that Jesus’ body does not need preserving because He has risen from the dead.

The wise men didn’t have a practical purpose in mind when they gave Jesus these gifts; and yet these gifts were full of meaning. And even if Jesus, His family, or His friends never actually used them, the meaning behind the gifts—and therefore the heart of the gifts—remained. The wise men gave Jesus gold because they knew He was a king: and not just a king—not just a king of the Jews, like Herod, or a king of the Gentiles, like Caesar Augustus. They knew that He was The King of the Jews and The King of the Gentiles. They knew that He was the King of kings, and they knew that He was their King. And so they gave Him gold, a fitting gift for a king. The wise men also gave Jesus frankincense because they knew that He wasn’t just a human king, but a Divine King. Frankincense wasn’t for freshening the air, it was for worshiping almighty God. And when the wise men gave Jesus this gift, they worshiped him as God, prostrating themselves and doing Him homage. Finally, they gave Jesus myrrh as a foreshadowing of His sacrificial and saving death. Even if these gifts didn’t have a practical purpose, they still had a great deal of meaning attached to them.

And that is true for the greatest gifts we can offer Jesus today, at this Mass. Our purpose in coming to Mass today isn’t to offer Jesus anything practical. But we do come to offer ourselves, which is the greatest and most meaningful gift we can give. When we offer Jesus ourselves at Mass, we are saying the same things which the wise men did when they offered their gifts: Jesus, you are my King; Jesus, you are my God; Jesus, you are the Sacrifice which saves me from my sins. No more precious or fragrant gift could be offered than that: the gift of ourselves. So let us do that at this Mass. Let us offer Jesus the gift of ourselves—not because Jesus has any practical need of us, but because He wants us, and wants to be in relationship with us. Let us worship Jesus as our King, our God, and our Sacrifice. And if we do that, we will be filled with that same joy which filled the hearts of the wise men. Amen.