Stranger Gifts

We’ve now had more than a week to get to know our Christmas gifts a little better. More importantly, we’ve had the chance to figure out how our gifts can makes us gifts to one another. That’s really the purpose of gifts, anyway. It’s not about impressing our loved ones, or even about giving them something practical to use. It’s ultimately about discovering what makes us into gifts to God and to one another.

So the gifts of the Magi seem impractical for this young family who’ve had to give birth in a stable. Surely the gold would be helpful if they were in financial straights. But frankincense and myrrh? These are stranger gifts.

Some of the greatest saints have pointed out the deeper, spiritual meaning of the gifts. Among them, St. Augustine notes: Gold, as paid to a mighty King; frankincense, as offered to God; myrrh, as to one who is to die for the sins of all.

These strange gifts from the Magi—gold for the King, incense for the God, myrrh for the Mortal who would one day die—may not be practical, useful, efficient. But they show that they recognize who Jesus is. They see more deeply than anyone else has yet seen. The baby laid in the wood of the manger would one day be laid on the wood of the Cross. The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes would one day be wrapped in the death bands, which He would leave behind as He leaves behind the tomb. The baby born in Bethlehem (a name which can be translated, “house of bread”) under a miraculous star would one day die under the darkness of a miraculous eclipse and so give us His own Body as the Living Bread, making us His dwelling place, His house.

The new Disney-Pixar movie Soul explores the special gift every person is created with. It’s certainly fraught with theological and anthropological shortcomings (perhaps, as expected from a Disney-Pixar endeavor), but it lets us reflect on our own “spark.” The characters get so wrapped up in trying to discover their spark as if it gives meaning and purpose to their life. But we know they are mistaken: your talents and accomplishments are great and all, but they don’t truly make you who you are. We know that Jesus—King, God, and Man—was born as a man so that we men and women could be reborn as sons and daughters of God. We know that Jesus—King, God, and Man—was born into a human family so that we could be reborn in the Divine Family of the Holy Trinity. So we know that no matter our talents and no matter our accomplishments, we were made for the greatest thing: to worship God. And Jesus gives us the ultimate act of worship on the Cross, and so in the Eucharist. We were made for this. We were made for what we do here at this altar. We were made to share in Jesus’ death on the Cross, so that we might share in His Resurrection and eternal life with God.

As I’ve been falling more and more in love with the writings of the female mystics of the Church, I’ve come across the 17th century French nun, Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament. Dwelling on and within the Mass, Mother Mectilde wrote to her sisters about the experience of death in the Mass and how we enter into it:

We say, “I am going to Mass.” But what are we doing here? “”Ah! I am going to assist at the death of God.” We must, therefore, go with the dispositions of death. Yes, my sisters, you may say in truth that you go to assist at the death of God, for it is the same sacrifice which was offered one on the Cross with the shedding of blood. And although this offering is not bloody, it is nevertheless the same God who sacrifices Himself and is sacrificed here. It is He Himself who is the priest and the victim, for, observe that the priest, in the words of the consecration, says, “This is My Body, this is My Blood.”
// Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament, The Mystery of Incomprehensible Love //

There is no greater gift Christ has given to us than His Body and His Blood on the Cross and in the Eucharist, and to be baptized into His Death and His Resurrection. But this new life demands of us a death to ourselves, which can happen every time we come to the altar. To come close to the Lord’s Anointed, the Christ, at the moment of His death, invites us to die so as to live. We become, in the mystical language of the Church, which may seem strange to our ears, Victim Souls. We unite ourselves to Christ on the Cross, so as to unite ourselves to Him in heaven. It’s the only way, indeed. We cannot do it on our own.

So I often think of the love that St. Louis Martin had for his daughters, among them the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In St. Thérèse’s own words, he is described as longing for this union to Christ as our Priest and Victim:

You remember the interview when he said to us: "Children, I have just come back from Alencon, and there, in the Church of Notre Dame, I received such graces and consolations that I made this prayer: 'My God, it is too much, yes, I am too happy; I shall not get to Heaven like this, I wish to suffer something for Thee--and I offered myself as a'"--the word “victim” died on his lips. He dared not pronounce it before us, but we understood.
// St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul //

This may sound harsh, frightening, impossible, but we were made to be so united to Jesus that we would become a priestly people, but also Victims Souls—offered to God for our holiness and for the world. From the moment of His birth in Bethlehem—the Magi first recognized it, and now we celebrate it in every Mass—Jesus came to be our Priest and the Victim that saves us. It may seem a stranger gift than even the Magi brought to Him. Bu there is no greater gift that one could give or we could receive—to be made like Christ: a priestly people, offering ourselves in love for the salvation of souls.

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