The Third Gift of Christmas

stained glassChristmas is a difficult season for someone whose doctor has announced, “I think you should consider hospice.”

Silent night, holy night!

All is calm, all is bright.

Christmas is a difficult season when caring for a dying loved one . . . or being the one cared for.

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Christmas is a difficult season if it’s the first holidays without a beloved child or spouse or parent.

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

In my neighborhood, lights twinkle along the darkening streets. Santas and snowmen and manger scenes sprawl across lawns. Families gather around tables. Colleagues join for parties at work. Children tremble with excitement and parents weary of telling the kids to be good. In cathedral’s large and sanctuary’s small, millions will meet on Christmas Eve, singing the familiar carols.

But your world is crushed.

Dying has replaced living.

Death has barged into a home.

Grief stalks you wherever you go.

As a pastor, I know this is the most special season for many Christians. Though Easter has more theological importance, the cultural obligations of gift giving have transformed Christmas into the high point of the year. Be nice! Don’t be naughty! Hark, the herald angels sing and there’s only a few more shopping days left! Don’t forget to request time off from work, and even if you haven’t, can everyone—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or non-believer—please, please, please head home early on Christmas Eve?

This season’s commercialism and expectations impact all faith traditions. Certainly in the United States, no one avoids encounters with the Baby Jesus. St. Nick and his elfish minions rule the stores. The radio is chock-full of cheery songs.

Though the story recounted in Matthew’s Gospel had the wise men from the east arriving when Jesus could’ve already had several birthdays, we hurry them into the manger scenes with the infant. They offer their gifts while Joseph, Mary and the babe are still huddled inside the stable.

As a Christian pastor serving in hospice, I understand these gifts as symbolic. The gold symbolized royalty, or Jesus as future “king.” The frankincense, a resin used for creating a fragrance in religious ceremonies, anticipated Jesus as the one to become a “priest” to his followers. But what of myrrh, the hard to spell (and sometimes hard to remember) third gift?

Back then, myrrh was used to prepare and preserve the body after death.

Death would be part of Jesus’ life.

Odd these gifts; odd how they, like it or not, eventually inspired Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays. Odd, also, regardless of your fervent faith in any religion or your scorn of faith for all religions, that one of the three gifts is a hospice gift.

Whether or not we are prepared—and we never really are—dying, death, and grief means that we receive the symbolic myrrh. Inspired by the Magi, I offer three “gifts” in this season of joy that for some feels like a season of hurt and heartache.

First from Rumi, the Islamic philosopher out of the Sufi tradition . . .

“But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad.

Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.”

From the Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh . . .

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”

And from Christian, Frederick Buechner . . .

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

Will these mere word gifts matter? A Christian, I listen to and learn from other traditions. With Rumi, I hope even in these worst of hours, you take moments to recall the blessings given to you by the one who is dying or the ones who are caring for you. With Thich Nhat Hanh, may each of us, the dying and the living, seek to release the feelings that entrap us, that keep us clinging to the past or unfairly comparing ourselves to others. With Frederick Buechner, how I long for everyone to remember, or to know for the first time, that they are precious and lovely.

Is Christmas a season of mirth? I hope so, for many.

However I work in hospice and know, for some, this is the season of myrrh. But still, for all, I wish you glad tidings. You are precious and lovely.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image is: Detail of the Adoration of the Magi Stained Glass Window; the Anglican Church of St Paul – Corner Queen and Bridge Streets, Korumburra (Australia)

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  1. Every now and then a writer weaves a message in a way that hits home with one of his/her readers.
    Every now and then a writer weaves a message that opens one’s heart.
    Every now and then a writer weaves a message that brings comfort at a time of hurt.

    With this one message, you have managed to do all three!

    It hit home, with me, because of the way you described the neighborhood and the memories that brought me right back to my hometown. Back to a time when both my parents were still alive. They’ve been gone for thirty years, and yet I didn’t get halfway through your message without beginning to cry. How is it possible to still miss people who’ve been gone so long?

    It hit home, with me, because of the way it opened my heart. As soon as I finished reading it I reached out to a dear friend who will be spending her first Christmas without both of her parents (they died within seven weeks of each other this past summer). I wanted to remind her that we’re thinking of her.

    It hit home, with me, because of the comfort offered in your words. Yes, they are only words; but your “word gifts” did – and do – matter. Thank you, Larry.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. Larry,

    A profound gift at Christmas tide! Thanks for putting into words what many are feeing in this season of joy.

  3. Your prose of wisdom again opened a pathway to understanding. Never did I really reflect on the gift of myrrh. Life and death are interwoven such as love and grief.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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