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‘On Sacred Journeys – Gifts’

Malachi 3:1-4; Matthew 2:9-11

(pause and walk through the ‘threshold’ of the wooden door on stage. Leave door ajar) Mark Threshold

Mark D HIt is the morning of Christmas Eve. It is not very often that we meet for worship on a morning like this, but today is Sunday. We will meet again tonight in the dark stillness of the evening. Our journey has brought us to this point. Everything is about to happen. Our waiting is over. Door number 24 in the Advent calendar has been opened and we have walked through. In fact, in our competitive house one of the kids, on a technicality, put on the 24th already after midnight last night. Most gifts are under the tree. Cookies are all baked and the turkey almost thawed, ready to go. The excitement level and noise level of children is rising exponentially. Parents have more or less hit their limit. We are almost there. We are on the threshold of another Christmas.

The big question of course, is when do you open Christmas gifts – Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? It can be quite the debate. The proper neutral pastoral response would be to say ‘yes.’ A little poll here. How many of you will open gifts tonight, Christmas Eve, that is your tradition? ____ How many wait until Christmas morning? ____ . I will do no judging, but I will admit that our family tradition, on both sides, has always been to open gifts on Christmas morning. I have pondered the kind of wonder and late night magic that must be a part of a Christmas Eve gift opening – could it possibly be less chaotic, more meaningful, more contemplative? However, I can only speak to the Christmas morning experience, (which sounds like the most common in this group). In our family, other than the pyjamas that have suddenly appeared while we were at the Christmas Eve service, we have to wait until the morning for the gifts. Growing up, my good friend James Friesen, a much younger sibling, 9 and 18 years difference, to a mostly grown up family, had to wait all the way until after church Christmas morning and a Christmas lunch, before his presents. So of course I would always blab away about my presents at our Christmas morning service, and what I got, much to his irritation.

Especially for children, but I suspect for most of us, there is a different kind of feeling upon waking up on Christmas morning. We have entered into something new, a special kind of day that has arrived, often much earlier than the normal day. All that waiting can now be unleashed in the excitement of the moment. But there is also this kind of holding back before entering the day. Kids wake up way too early, and are not allowed to leave their room until parents say so. My Dad tells stories of growing up on the farm and the 4 brothers waking up soon after 4 am on Christmas and playing ping pong on the hard wooden floor right over the heads of their parents’ bedroom until they would wake up. I love the family tradition Rachel brought into our marriage. You can’t come downstairs until you hear the music. So Rachel and I can run around and get last things ready and put breakfast in the oven, before blaring some Christmas music.... okay, it’s always the timpani opening of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and then the Christmas morning threshold has been reached and they can run down the stairs.... It was a much quicker pounding down the stairs and much earlier in the morning, when they were younger. Having entered Christmas, we try to take our time. Only the stockings, before pausing for breakfast, and then the rest of the gifts.

Do any of the rest of you find buying the right Christmas gift tricky? Perhaps especially for a spouse. Can you find that perfect gift? I didn’t inherit a good track record from my Mom. Gifts were hit and miss. There were the home made clothes and the electronic toys without batteries or the toys popular last year, now on sale, or very different grand children now all getting the same gift. You never knew! One year as a young adult, when the newest strategy game of choice was Rail Barons, my brother, to my envy, opened up a brand new Rail Barons game, and I received the ‘MCC Game’ - a kind of lame trivial pursuit type game about MCC workers and who served where when. I try to listen throughout the year to comments made and needs expressed by my dear spouse, and so one year got Rachel a bunch of different sized ladles of all things – gravy, soup, casserole, punch bowl ladles, each wrapped individually and hidden around the tree. Another year I got her a small step ladder for the tent trailer... which I use to put the bikes on top. Hmm... she had said we needed something like that for camping. Occasionally I do get it right, but she would have to tell you when. Wish me luck tomorrow. When someone does give you the right gift, you know it right away. The best are the surprises. It was a gift you did not expect, but you immediately know you have wanted it all along. Someone was truly listening hard to you, to your personality and needs, and it is as if that gift was calling to you all along, without you knowing until that moment it is revealed. It was just right.

This morning’s Scriptures and themes are all about gifts and about the threshold of this moment, as we heard from the title of Jan Richardson’s poem – ‘Blessing the Threshold.’ Our Advent journey with the Magi has finally arrived at this point. It stared much earlier - 1st Advent – Stars – Where the Map Begins, taking that first step. ‘The treasure in this map buried not at journey’s end but at its beginning.’ (Jan Richardson, Where the Map Begins). Then there was the travel on 2nd Advent, the long journey ‘The mercies of the road we only know by stages as it opens before us, as it comes into our keeping step by single step.’ ‘If you could see the journey whole you might never undertake it.’ (Jan Richardson, For Those who have far to Travel) Advent 3 – taking your place in the story – what character are you? What can I give him? (Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter). And now the Wisemen have arrived in Bethlehem, at the place where the star has stopped, hovering over the place where the child was. What does it mean to finally arrive? To get to that place where your journey has been aimed for so long? To Cross this Threshold? ‘This blessing has been waiting for you for a long time. While you have been making your way here this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, biding its time praying.’ (Jan Richardson, Blessing the Threshold)

I have loved the poems, but also loved the art work we have been witnessing each week, also by Jan Richardson. Today’s is entitled ‘Wise Women Came Also,’ reminding us of that the blessings of Christ are for all, and that wisdom knows no boundaries. It reminds me too of an email I received this week that wondered what would have happened if there had been three Wise Woman instead of Three Wise Men? ‘They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.’ Figures - they would have got the gifts right! I somehow identify more with the Wise men.


Back to the poem for this week. So what is a threshold? In its very literal sense, it is the plank, stone, strip of wood that sits at the bottom of a doorway. (Point to the doorway) When you enter a home, you go through the doorway; you cross over this literal threshold, but also a symbolic one. Have you ever noticed how people often pause for a moment before entering through the doorway? You go from outside to inside, from one environment to another. It can mean going from the uncertainty of knocking to the certainty of welcome, from stranger to guest. Think about the energy, hubbub and commotion when guests come over to your house and they enter through that doorway - as you give your hugs and greetings, as you enter into a new experience together. There’s a moment, a connection, a relationship, the start of something new, yet strangely, the feeling that it has already begun a long time ago. We also talk about threshold as something psychological, the point at which a certain effect takes hold and begins, you have reached a new level. We talk about the threshold of pain, or what threshold of debt you are comfortable with or being on the threshold of a new age. It is when you get over a certain hump, a certain limit, and enter something new. It is also a term used in spiritual direction and guidance. Those of us who were a part of the Tending the Soul series of retreats a few years ago will recall our main instructor and guide Wendy Miller, often using the phrase ‘to cross the threshold’ – into prayer, into worship, into a direct relationship with God. There is a putting behind of the mundane, regular concerns of life, preparing yourself to receive the gifts of the moment, to come in openness, and intentionally enter into the divine presence. There is a new alertness to God’s presence – a kind of paying attention. You need to take that final step, to cross over, and then realize that God has been there with you all along. Maybe it is like that refiner’s fire, the purifying of God, where we can suddenly stand face to face before our Creator.

This is what the Wisemen experience. This star they have been following for what seems like forever, finally stops in the most unlikely of spots – this house in Bethlehem. Remember, they would have expected a palace, royalty. They had already checked in with King Herod in royal Jerusalem, the obvious place. Opening that door, crossing that threshold, would have taken them totally by surprise. A poor family, a young Mary, a tiny baby. What kind of king is this? But in that instant, they all of a sudden know the full picture as if it had been there all along. They were in the right place and the right time. It all makes sense now: the star, the signs, the long journey. They knew it was what they had been looking for all along, what they had wanted, most deeply desired. They had crossed the threshold. And their immediate response – being overwhelmed by Joy, and kneeling down in worship. It is spontaneous and profound. They have met God Incarnate, face to face. They give their gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but know deep in their hearts that they are the ones truly receiving a gift, a blessing.

I mentioned Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – a magnificent, joyous work that tells the Christmas story in 6 parts. But the very first chorale you hear in Part I, is the music from ‘O Sacred Head now Wounded’ – the dark passion Chorale we sing on Good Friday. Bach knew intuitively that in the birth, is already the death. It is only in Part II that you hear the joyous chorale that we will end our service with today. (HWB#203 – Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light). In a similar way, upon seeing the child, the Wiseman instantly know that the King they had been preparing for, would not come with worldly power and military might, but in weakness, vulnerability, sacrifice and love. They knew this in their heart. In the birth is already the death that will lead to new life. In the beginning is the end, and that end is the new beginning. It is like they knew this all along, it was just waiting to be revealed, a hidden gem and promise and gift. Their journey ended, but only really just begun, now by a totally different road.

So we too stand on the Eve of Christ’s birth for us again. We have been waiting for this all along, this moment. Yes, there will be gifts and glitter, food and excitement. But at its core, the true gift of Christmas is the Christ child come to us, the blessing of a new way to live and be in our world. This is where our journey ends, and where it truly begins. We have arrived. Come, let us cross the threshold.

“Blessing the Threshold” (Jan Richardson)

This blessing
has been waiting for you
for a long time.

While you have been
making your way here
this blessing has been
gathering itself
making ready
biding its time

This blessing has been
polishing the door
oiling the hinges
sweeping the steps
lighting candles
in the windows.

This blessing has been
setting the table
as it hums a tune
from an old song
it knows,
something about
a spiraling road
and bread
and grace.

All this time
it has kept an eye
on the horizon,
keeping vigil,
hardly aware of how
it was leaning itself
in your direction.

And now that
you are here
this blessing
can hardly believe
its good fortune
that you have finally arrived,
that it can drop everything
at last
to fling its arms wide
to you, crying