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 I can I give him, give my heart.
Most of you will immediately recognize those words as the final verse of one of our most popular and most 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 I 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, he set out to explore in a bit more detail what that might actually mean.
Nathaniel Wanley was born in 1634, so he 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 interpreted 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 begin 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 so 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, and of God’s healing love – not as an optional extra but as something of visceral importance. 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. And our news reports today are dominated by yet more heart-rending stories of violence, tragedy and injustice, and with predictions for the future that fill our hearts with fear. The world 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.’ To proclaim that the power of God can transform our broken and troubled world; and that 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.
Life is full of surprises, and given all the uncertainties that face us at the present time: the cost of living crisis; the constant disruption caused by all those strikes; the economic uncertainties, the consequences of climate change that are increasingly dire … I suspect that all of us are aware that the months ahead represent a journey into the unknown. There will be challenges – some of which are known, others that will take us completely unawares – and there will also be unexpected gifts along the way; signs of hope and encouragement when we need them most. Because one of the most disabling fears of all can be that of uncertainty.
The death of the Queen was one of the landmark events of the past year. And watching the television coverage of her funeral procession to her final resting place in Windsor, I was reminded of the famous lines that are carved on the entrance to the tomb of her beloved father, George VI, at St George’s Chapel there – a monarch whom himself ruled this country through one of its darkest hours – during the Second World war. There can be few more appropriate words for us, too, as we face the year ahead. You will, I’m sure be familiar with these lines by Minnie Louise Haskins:
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.’
Happy New Year!