St Bride's: Sermons

Gifts

 What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what can I give him, give my heart.

Many of you will immediately recognize those words as the final verse of one of our most popular and haunting Christmas carols, In the Bleak Midwinter - words written by the poet Christina Rossetti. What you may not know, however, is that two hundred years before Rossetti penned her famous last line - 'What can I give him - give my heart', an obscure Church of England priest called Nathaniel Wanley wrote a poem on precisely the same theme - but, unlike Rossetti, set out to explore in a bit more detail what that might actually mean.

Nathaniel Wanley was born in 1634, so was eight years old at the outbreak of the English Civil War (more on that in a moment).  And the poem he wrote, which was called simply 'Royal Presents' reflects on the significance of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought to the Christ child by the Magi - before he goes on to  reflect on the gifts that we ourselves might bring to the manger.

The traditional explanation for the three rather strange gifts brought by the Wise Men is, of course, the following: gold is said to symbolize Christ's Kingship; frankincense, which is associated with worship, points to Christ's divinity - or, as it is sometimes expressed, his priesthood.  And myrrh, an aromatic resin that was used to make perfumes and ointments, is regarded as pointing forward to the anointing of Christ's body in death.  In the words of the third King, Balthazar, in the carol we shall be singing a little later in today's service:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom;

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

So, the symbolic significance of the three gifts is that each one of them tells us something very important about the identity, and the destiny, of the Christ child. 

And the opening lines of Nathaniel Wanley's poem begins by giving us that same absolutely conventional explanation of the symbolism of the gifts of the magi.  He wrote this:

The off'rings of the Eastern Kings of old

unto our Lord were incense, myrrh and gold;

incense because a God; gold as a King;

and myrrh as to a dying man they bring.

But, as I have already indicated, what makes Wanley's poem really interesting is that, just as Christina Rossetti was to do, two centuries later, he then goes on to ask what kinds of gifts ordinary Christians such as you and I might offer to the Christ child - and the answers that he comes up with are basically these:

In place of frankincense, we can offer our prayer.  In place of myrrh, we can offer our penitence - and perhaps most strikingly of all, in place of gold, we can offer a broken heart.  And note with care that last little detail.  Whereas Christina Rossetti suggests that one can give one's heart, for Nathaniel Wanley it is a heart that is broken.  This is how his poem puts it:

Instead of incense (blessed Lord) if we

Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee;

Instead of myrrh, if we can but provide

Tears that from penitential eyes do slide;

And though we have no gold, if for our part

We can present thee with a broken heart

Thou wilt accept; and say those Eastern Kings

Did not present thee with more precious things.

Prayer, penitence, and a heart that is broken: things far more precious in the sight of God than the expensive gifts offered by those three Eastern Kings.  But why do those things matter so very much?

Prayer is precious because it is prayer that connects us to God.  God burns with the desire to speak to each one of us, but he cannot do so unless we open ourselves to hear his voice. 

Penitence matters, because it is only when we are sufficiently aware of our own shortcomings, and the ways in which we have failed God and each other, to want to do something about it - it is only then that we can truly recognize our need of God.  God burns with the desire to heal us; but he cannot do so unless we first recognize our need to be made whole.

And a broken heart, because a heart that is broken is a heart that truly knows what it means to love; to feel compassion; to experience the pain felt by another.  The symbol of a broken heart is actually to do with the pain of authentic loving; it is the cost of allowing ourselves truly to love and to be loved; a kind of loving that is in its very essence Christ-like.  God burns with the desire to fill us with his love, but he cannot do so, unless we first recognize our need to open our hearts to him, and, in the process, to our brothers and sisters throughout the human race.  Of all people it was Oscar Wilde who once wrote: 'How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in.'

Our world can be a dark, dark place sometimes.  Nathaniel Wanley knew that.  He lived through one of the most turbulent, chaotic, and bloody periods of English history.  In recent days the news has been filled with heart-rending stories of tragedy, ranging from acts of deliberate terrorism, to the results of catastrophic accident.  It can be a dark, dark place.

And yet ... and yet ... this morning's reading from Isaiah has the audacity to declare (even though darkness covers the earth), 'Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.'  The power of God can transform our broken and troubled world; and God burns for that transformation.

But for that to be possible, we must play our own part in helping to unleash that power into the world; and the first stage in that process is to allow ourselves to be transformed by God's love and grace.  And I think that Nathaniel Wanley was absolutely right in identifying prayer, penitence, and a heart that can be broken, as the essential starting points.  But to be able to begin that particular journey we must first be ready to trust God - really trust him.

On New Year's Eve, four of us watched the fireworks from the top of the church tower here, which was a truly wonderful and memorable experience - and at the time I made the observation that, looking back to this time a year ago the last place on earth I would have expected to be marking the arrival of 2015 was at the top of a church tower in Fleet Street.  Life is full of surprises.  None of us can ever truly know what lies ahead for us - either the gifts or the challenges - because every journey into the future is, of course, essentially a journey into the unknown.  There will be things that we hope for in the year ahead; and things that we fear.  And one of the most disabling fears of all can be that of uncertainty.

Which is why I know of no better words to greet the start of a new year than the famous lines by Minnie Louise Haskins that are carved on the entrance to the tomb of George VI at St George's Chapel, Windsor - a monarch who ruled this country through another of its darkest hours, during the Second World War.  She wrote this:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied:

'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God;

That shall be to you better than light

And safer than a known way.'

 Amen.

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