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A Different Epiphany Story

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Bethlehem 2011The story has been told for centuries now.  The story of the three Wiseman, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and the gifts they brought to the newborn king.  And what were their gifts?  Everyone knows that.  They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But suppose that there may be more to the gifts.  This is the story of the Secret of the Gifts.

The first of the three visitors to approach the stable was Gaspar.  He was a wealthy man.  Those who watched saw only that he paused at the stable door, thinking that he was praying.  But they were mistaken.  They could not see the Angel Gabriel, guarding the holy place.  “Who are you?” Gabriel asked the traveler in a firm voice.  “I am Gaspar, and I have come to worship the King,” he replied.  “All who enter here must bring a gift,” said Gabriel.  “What is your gift?”  “I have brought bars of the purest gold.”  “Ah, but your gift must be the essence of yourself.  It must be something precious to your soul.”  “Such I have brought,” Gaspar answered confidently.  “So it shall be,” said Gabriel, as he allowed Gaspar to enter.

There before the rough board wall of the stable, lay the tiny King he had traveled so far to see.  Gaspar advanced slowly.  He was just about to kneel and lay his gold before the child when he stopped and stood upright.  There in his outstretched hands lay not gold, but a hammer.  Its scarred and blackened head was larger than a man’s fist.  Its handle was of sinewy wood as long as a man’s forearm.  “But, but….”, Gaspar stammered as he stared, dumbfounded, at the heavy tool.  Then softly from behind him, he heard the voice of Gabriel.  “So shall it be, and so it is,” said the angel.  “You have brought the essence of yourself.”  Gaspar turned indignantly.  “A hammer?  What foul magic is this?”  “None but the magic of truth,” replied Gabriel.  “What you hold in your hands is the hammer of your greed.  You have used it to pound wealth from those who labor so that you may live in luxury.  You have raised it against friends and enemies.”  Suddenly, Gaspar knew the truth.  Bowed with shame, he turned to leave.

But Gabriel blocked his way.  “No, no,” he said.  “You have not offered your gift.”  “I cannot give a hammer to a King!”  “But you must,” Gabriel replied.  “That is why you came.  And you cannot take it back with you.  It is too heavy.  You have carried it for many years and even now your arms ache with its weight.  You must leave it here or it will destroy you.”  Gaspar knew the angel spoke the truth.  But still he protested.  “The hammer is too heavy.  The child cannot lift it.”  “He’s the only one who can,” replied the angel.  “But it is dangerous.  He might bruise his hands or feet.”  “That worry you must leave to heaven,” said Gabriel.  “The hammer shall find its place.”  Slowly Gaspar turned to where the Christ child lay.  And slowly he placed the ugly hammer at the baby’s feet.  Then he rose and turned to the door, pausing only for an instant to look back at the tiny Savior before he rushed outside.  The waiting world saw only the smile on Gaspar’s face.  His hands were raised as though the wings of angels graced his fingers.

Next to step to the stable door was Melchior, the learned one.  The length of his beard and the furrows in his brow bespoke one who had lived long with the wisdom of the ages.  He, too, paused at the entrance, but only Melchior could see and hear the angel.  “What have you brought?” asked Gabriel.  “I bring frankincense, the fragrance of hidden lands and bygone days.”  “Your gift must be something precious to your soul,” cautioned Gabriel.  “Of course it is,” replied Melchior.  “Then enter and we shall see.”

Melchior stood breathless before the scene within.  In all his many years of searching for elusive Truth, he had never sensed such a presence as this.  He knelt reverently.  And from his robe he withdrew the silver flask of precious ointment.  But then he drew back and stared.  The vessel in his hand was not silver at all.  It was common clay, rough and stained.  Aghast, he pulled the stopper from its mouth and sniffed the contents.  Then he leapt to his feet, only to face the angel at the door.  “I’ve been tricked,” he said, spitting out the words with fury.  “This is not the frankincense I brought!”  “What is it then?” asked Gabriel.  “It is vinegar!” Melchior snarled as though it were a curse.  “So shall it be, and so it is,” said Gabriel.  “You have brought what you are made of.”  “You are an angel of fools,” snorted Melchior.  But Gabriel went on.  “You bring the bitterness of your heart, the soured wine of a life turned grim with jealousy and hate.  You have carried within you too long the memory of old hurts.  You have hoarded your resentments and breathed on sparks of anger until they have become as embers smoldering within you.  “You have sought for knowledge.  But you have filled your life with poison.”

As he heard these words, Melchior’s shoulders drooped.  He turned his face away from Gabriel and fumbled with his robe, as though to hide the earthen jar.  Silently he moved toward the door.  Gabriel smiled gently and placed his hand on Melchior’s arm.  “Wait, you must leave your gift.”  “How I wish I could!” Melchior sighed sadly.  “How long have I yearned to empty my soul of its bitterness.  You have spoken the truth, my friend.  But I cannot leave it here!  Not here at the feet of love and innocence.”  “But you can, and you must,” replied Gabriel.  “There is a use even for vinegar.”  So Melchior placed his gift before the Savior.  When he came out of the stable, his eyes shown with the clearest light of heaven’s truth.  His skin was a smooth as a youth’s as he lifted his face to gaze on horizons he had never seen before.

There was yet one more visitor to make his offering.  He walked forward as one born to command.  This was Balthasar, leader of many legions, scourge of walled cities.  Before him, as he grasped it by its handle of polished ebony, he carried a brass-bound box.  Again, it was Gabriel who confronted him.  “Have you a gift?”  “Of course,” answered Balthasar.  “I bring a gift of myrrh, the most precious booty of my boldest conquest.  Many have fought and died for centuries to obtain such as this.  It is the essence of the rarest herb.”  “But is the essence of yourself?” asked Gabriel.  “It is,” replied the great general.  “Then, come, and we shall see.”

Even the fearless Balthasar was not prepared for the wave of awe that struck him as he entered the holy place of the Christ child.  He felt a weakness in his knees such as he had never known before.  Closing his eyes, he knelt and shuffled forward through the straw in reverence.  Then, bowing until his face was near the ground, he slowly released his grip on the handle of the box and raised his head and opened his eyes.  What lay before him at the baby’s feet was his own spear.  The razor edges of its steely tip caught the flickering light of the lamp.  “It cannot be!” Balthasar whispered hoarsely.  “Some enemy has cast a spell!”  “That is more than you know,” said Gabriel softly from behind him.  “A thousand enemies have cast their spell on you and turned your soul into a spear.”  “You speak in riddles,” shouted Balthasar.  “I’ll teach you not to jest at a time like this.”  And he raised his fist as if to strike.  Gabriel did not flinch as he continued to speak.  “Living only to conquer, you have been conquered.  Each battle you win leads you only to another with a foe yet more formidable.”

“Do you think I like what I do?” demanded Balthasar.  “You angels know nothing of this world.  I am the defender of my people.  Were it not for my spear leading them into battle, we should have been destroyed long ago.  Why, even now, the enemy is massing to invade us.  As soon as I leave this holy place, I must raise more armies.  I must buy more weapons to arm them and….”  “More?” Gabriel interrupted.  “And then what; will your enemies need more, too?”  Balthasar heard the angel’s words and they seemed to echo in the deepest places of his soul as though vaguely familiar.  Was the question one that he had sometimes asked himself?  For a moment he hesitated.  Then he reached down and grasped his spear, and turned toward the door.  “I cannot leave this here,” he said.  “My people need it.  We cannot afford to give it up.”  “Are you sure,” asked Gabriel, “that you cannot afford to keep it?”  “But our enemies will destroy us if we drop our spears,” Balthasar said impatiently.  “We cannot take that risk.”  “Yes, it is a risk,” replied the angel.  “But your way is a certainty; a certainty of spears and killing.”

The force of Gabriel’s words did battle with centuries of warrior instinct as Balthasar hesitated.  A long moment passed.  Finally he loosened his grip, and the spear dropped to the ground.  But as he looked at the child at his feet, he whispered anxiously to Gabriel, “But here?  Is it safe to leave it here?”  The angel whispered back, “This is the only place to leave it.”  “But he is just a child, and the spear is sharp.  It could pierce his flesh.”  “That fear you must leave to heaven,” Gabriel replied.  They say that Balthasar went calmly from the stable, his arms hanging gently at his sides.  They say that he walked to Gaspar and Melchior, where they waited, and embraced them as brothers.

Now you, too, may kneel before the Christ child to leave at his feet those unseen, secret things that may be left nowhere else but there.  What gift will you leave with the Savior?  And having visited the holy place, you, too, like those three visitors of old, may go on your way made new.  But what of their gifts, you ask.  What of the hammer, and the vinegar, and the spear?  Well, there is another story about them and how they were seen once more, and used years later; in fact, on a lonely hill outside of Jerusalem.  But do not worry.  That is a burden heaven took upon itself, as only heaven can.         -Pastor Kurt Wandrey