Monday, January 13, 2014

The Gift of the Magi

This afternoon in chapel, it is easy to feel disoriented.  There must be a few more days of vacation to get our bearings before returning to Kent.  Has Christmas break really come and gone?  Is it actually 2014?  Am I really back at school?  Did it have to be so cold this week?  Why is chapel at 4:00 instead of in the morning? …not that I’m complaining about that, but…well, maybe I am complaining as I sit here right now.  It’s what I do best.  Oh, and why did we come back on Monday instead of Tuesday as we usually do?  I don’t want to forget that little point.  
There seems to be no shortage of things to blame for the feeling of disorientation.  Travel, airlines, family, holiday commercialism, the calendar, the weather, and Kent School with a full week of classes behind us.  But I, for one, blame the game of football—college football, not the NFL-- for the lost feeling that I have on this twelfth day of January, 2014, which is also the first Sunday after the Epiphany.  By the way, does anyone know the score in the 49er game?  For all of my life, New Year’s Day has been a day of sacred football—all day and into the night.  New Year’s resolutions could always wait, because there were still college football bowl games coming at you all day, finishing off with the Orange and/or Sugar Bowl games at night.  For a few years now, the Bowl Championship Series, the not very intelligent brain child of the NCAA, has prolonged this glut of football, laziness, and endless commercials until the 4th or 5th day of January, but this Monday’s national championship game between Auburn and Alabama didn’t happen until January 6th.  I love college football, but I didn’t even watch the game because I was getting back in the seven day swing of Kent School.  That’s just plain wrong—the football part of it.  Oh, and the national championship was played at the Rose Bowl, which means that there were two Rose Bowls this year.  It all makes no sense.  This is not progress, but it’s here.   
So, this afternoon I am, hopefully, going to help you get your bearings.  As I mentioned, today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany—the feast where we celebrate the arrival of the wise men, or magi as they’re sometime called.  In our present state of disorientation, it is easy to feel like we missed something—that the real spirit of Christmas passed us by, and we’ll just return to our old habits here at Kent.  The happy new year has already lost its glow. 

Our lives are complicated.  Just the travel plans of Kent students are complicated enough, and not everyone in our community is back—even now.  And so this afternoon, I wanted to return to a simple story that stops us in our tracks with the changing nature of God, who enters our lives to dwell with a new wisdom, even when the new seems to quickly lose its luster.

The story is “The Gift of the Magi,” by the writer O. Henry.

“The Gift of the Magi” is as strong and simple, as humble and spare, as the story of the birth of a child in a manger.  This homily will be short and sweet because that’s what this story is.  But it is a small treasure, when you open it up.  

“The Gift of the Magi” is about a young couple, Jim and Della, who love each other very much.  To both Jim and Della, there is no one more special, no person more beloved.  No one who brings them closer to the goodness of God; that to love someone deepens the willingness to give of yourself, and to find depths that you never expected.  To love completely is to give completely; love, true love, really doesn’t involve power at all.  Like Mary and Joseph of old, the couple in the story is rich in love, but poor in possessions.  They have little money to buy the perfect gifts to exchange on Christmas Eve.  Yet because they love, they long to give wondrous gifts to each other.

Della has beautiful brown hair; long, flowing hair like a waterfall.  Jim decides the perfect gift to express his love is a beautiful set of jeweled combs—tortoise shell with jeweled rims.  But he can’t afford his chosen gift for his beloved.  Not even close.

Of course, he goes and sells his only treasure: his gold watch.  It will be a perfect Christmas; everything will fall into place this year like a dream.  There is nothing to think about in the decision, no register of truer value to consider.  He just gives.  The watch is sold to express the “eternal now” that enters our lives during this season. 

Della likewise is on the same page of the very short story.  Jim’s most cherished possession is his gold watch, but he doesn’t have a gold chain to keep it in his pocket.  She can’t afford a gold chain, and she has only a $1.87 to make her purchase, exactly twenty dollars short of the needed funds.  But she can’t give up her image of the perfect Christmas, the perfect gift.

But there is a woman on her street who buys hair to make wigs (there’s one in every neighborhood, probably one who lives in your dorm.  I’m pretty sure there’s a girl in North Dorm, and you can always sell hair at South Kent…just kidding, I made that up.).  At any rate, Della’s long hair will get a very good price.

There is nothing to consider, no pause to hold back.  She is sped by the animation of an open and giving heart.  Like the impractical God who gives so freely into a world that scarcely notices, forgetting to scan the skies, or the neighborhood, for the unexpected gift.

Her treasure is her love, not the vanity of her hair.

Both Jim and Della, husband and wife, meet each other with their perfect gifts of Christmas.  The reader and we this evening are wonderfully ahead of our Christmas couple.

Jeweled combs for hair that has been shorn. 
A gold chain for a watch that has been sold.
And there we are, holding nothing but everything.
Imperfectly matched with their gifts, a circle of love is yet complete—fitted hearts like a figure eight of connection, warmth, and new wisdom.  Feeling anew the love, the God, who chooses us, our lives as a fitting place in which to dwell.  You got to have some soul in the new year.  If you’ve already lost it, you can find it again.  Your treasure is often in the unexpected place, sometimes the very last place you would look. 

I will close with the sweet words of O.Henry to ring in the new year at Kent on a an ordinary Sunday afternoon in the dead of winter:

“The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.  Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication.  And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle for two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.  But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.  Of all who give and receive gifts, such are the wisest.  Everywhere they are the wisest.  They are the magi.”

Happy new year.  Happy Epiphany.  And welcome back to school.  Even in our bleak mid-winter, our hearts can still be warm with the love of God, and each other. 

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