The Last of the Myrrh
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Christmas Day 2011
The Last of the Myrrh
This is not scripture. This is not even a legend. This is something I have just wondered for years. It’s something I have pondered in my heart about Mary and the things she pondered in her heart. It begins with the line, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
I can picture the Holy Family in Egypt. They live there for some years while King Herod still rules Judea. All the babies two years old and younger were wiped out and Mary, Joseph and young Jesus are now living as refugees in the country where their ancestors were once enslaved. These could not have been easy years. They were cut off from their family and friends. From what we know of Jesus upbringing, it is a very safe bet that his parents lived among Jews in Egypt and that they worshipped in a synagogue there. Victoria, Griffin and I have visited a synagogue in Egypt which claims to be on the site of where Joseph, Mary and Jesus once worshipped with other Jews.
I imagine them there in Cairo trying to make ends meet. This is where the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh come back into the story for me. I imagine the great gifts sitting hearthside for the family in the early days in Egypt, but before long, they need the gold for silly things like food and a place to live. I can see their gifts fit for a king dwindling as the refugees try to make it as poor foreigners in a strange land.
And then I imagine the last of the myrrh. I know, it could have been frankincense, but it probably wasn’t gold. Gold was already currency and in my mind would have been the easiest to spend. Frankincense was used in worship and was a quite valuable incense. The Myrrh was another gum resin like Frankincense. It was used in preparing the dead for burial. And I can see this costly good made for last things going last.
Mary has pondered that Silent Night for a few years. That night there had been the assurance that came when the shepherds crowded into the stable with news of a host of angels filling the sky and announcing Jesus’ birth. Later, the strange Magi had come from the east with their gifts. All of this was assurance that Gabriel’s appearances to her and to Joseph had not been caused by over active imagination and they were no mere dreams.
Mary as much as anyone understood the miracle of virgin birth. But Mary was human and temptations come. And Mary like everyone else would have been tempted to wonder if it weren’t all a dream.
This had happened to Jesus’ own relative John the Baptist. When, years later, he would baptize Jesus, John knew from God and prophesied rightly that Jesus was The One, The Messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Time passed and he was in the jail of a later King Herod when John wondered if he had been right. John sent some of his own disciples to Jesus for confirmation that Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah. John was given the sign of Jesus’ miracles as proof.
This proof is what Mary might have needed. Her son was a miracle. However, Jesus’ soiled his diaper like any other baby, and he wasn’t walking on water yet. I imagine quite easily that doubts crept in, because they always do.
But Mary and Joseph had their Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They had the signs that it was all very real. And because I find that God always requires steps of faith from those who would follow him, I easily imagine the day when the last of the myrrh had to be sold. Joseph knows it. Mary knows it. But neither wants to let it go. And sweet Mary who has been pondering the meaning of the Incarnation in her heart now has to let go of the Myrrh.
Tough years are a certainty in a culture dependent on agriculture and even a carpenter is affected. Prices for food rise when availability dwindles and sometimes you need more than you can earn. The miracle of the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh is that they were exactly what they needed to be able to survive in Egypt in the tough times. God gives gifts so that they will be used. God had been faithful and provided what they needed. Mary knew they would be okay, and she also knew that the myrrh must be sold. It tears something deep within the fabric of her being to let go of that Myrrh, but she also knows that she can’t hold on to it.
That night, the food they bought tasted good. The rains would be better the next year. God would provide. But now even the containers were gone. Every sign was gone that the Magi had ever made their long trek to Bethlehem.
Now Mary has only the echo of the words from the shepherds that night. The reflected glow of the angels still dancing in their eyes as they tell their tale. She has that and she has Jesus. She can no longer prove that the miracle occurred. But she doesn’t need proof. The proof is replaced by a rock solid faith that will now sustain her in Egypt, on the journey home and all the way to Golgotha and the empty tomb.
And yes, this idea of the last of the myrrh is just my imagination. But I suspect there is something to it, because I have seen the story repeated again in my own life and in the lives of the people to whom I minister.
The initial power of a miracle fades. You pray for healing and it comes, and it is easy to see the miracle. But later doubt creeps in and you wonder if healing would not have come with or without the prayer. You pray for the right job and though it doesn’t come when you want and it is not what you expected, you know in your heart that the right job came at the right time. Then time passes and you wonder.
The story of Jesus’ birth is a nighttime story. The shepherds came by dark to find Jesus. But there is always the morning after the miracle, which is today. And then there is the morning after that, and the morning after that. Then there are those days, like the one Mary had when Jesus died that make it impossible to believe in miracles at all. But if you hang on, there is always an Easter after Good Friday. There is always another miracle, though the drought can seem long.
For faith is what happens between miracles. Faith is what sustains you when the last of the myrrh is gone and you can no longer prove anything to anyone. And faith is that substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen that sustained Mary in Egypt after the myrrh was gone. And faith is what will sustain you as we move from the Christmas to New Year’s and beyond.
Christmas Eve is over. The myrrh is gone. But the miracle remains. Have faith. The Immanuel of Bethlehem is still with us. God is with you in your heart and in your life both in the times when you experience miracles and in the times in between.