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Monday, January 5, 2015

As they offered gifts most rare
at thy manger, rude and bare,
so may we with holy joy,
pure and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly king.

Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.

William Chatterton Dix’s “As with Gladness Men of Old”
(tune: Dix)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

One of my favorite holiday traditions is the Fourth Church Morning Choir poetry slam, which is held during what would otherwise be the down time between the 8:30 and 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve services. As we singers share our poems (including some we’ve written ourselves), it’s customary for one of us to read T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi.” Eliot’s version of this familiar story is narrated by one of the wise men, who depicts himself and his companions not as stately figures in fine silk robes but as tired, irritable travelers sodden with mud and smelling of camels, bad food, and the road. Following a description of the trek to Bethlehem, the poem’s ending is ambiguous, as the narrator reflects that after having seen the child, the magi—now back in their kingdoms—are “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”

Compared to Eliot’s poem, today’s hymn offers a more sanitized portrayal of the magi’s journey. The hymn’s text is a prayer that asks God to grant us the ability to follow the example of the wise men by offering to Christ “our costliest treasures” in a spirit of “holy joy” free from sin’s corrupting influence. The central point of this prayer is, of course, an important one—namely, that the proper response to God’s priceless gift of salvation through Christ is that we devote to God the “costliest” (that is, the most valuable) gifts God has first given us: our talents, our energies, our very lives.

Still, for all that this traditional interpretation has to recommend it, I welcome my annual encounter with Eliot’s magi because they seem to have a lot in common with me and most people I know. As I think Eliot implies, those travelers from the East embarked upon and endured their journey not just because they wanted to offer expensive gifts to a future king, but because they were searching for something—something to fill a void in their hearts, something to disturb the familiar yet unsatisfying contours of their lives. From this perspective, what today’s hymn describes as our “costliest treasures” may be understood in a newly unfavorable way: that our “treasures” may actually be false treasures that habitually occupy a central place in our lives despite their corrosive effects on ourselves and others. I’m talking, now, about things like the fear of not being good enough, anxiety from the sense that we are unlovable, pride in selfish accomplishments, shame for things we’ve done, guilt, resentment, loneliness. Such treasures are “costly” only in that they exact from us a terrible price.

I suspect that the cost and weight of these treasures—these old dispensations—are among the reasons that so many people come to church on Christmas Eve, and I happen to think that’s a pretty good reason. For if (like Eliot’s magi) we kneel before the manger as much from fatigue and longing as from reverence and gratitude, it’s because it is there that we can leave behind our costliest treasures and take up, in the presence of the Christ child, a renewed promise of God’s grace and hope.

  1. Prayer
    Beside thy cradle here I stand
    O thou that ever livest
    And bring thee with a willing hand
    The very gifts thou givest
    Accept me, ‘tis my mind and heart
    My soul, my strength, my ev’ry part
    That thou from me requirest.

    (from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio)

Jesus, please accept my every part—my best and my worst, the good gifts you first gave me and the vain treasures that cost me most. Amen.

Written by Todd DeStigter, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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