By Eric Von Salzen
I was a king. Not just any king. A “King of Orient Are”. And not just any “King of Orient Are”, but the third king. The grim one.
It was the Christmas Pageant at Westminster Presbyterian Church, West Hartford, CT, and I was 10 or 12 years old. I was big for my age (“husky”, not fat), which was why I was cast as a king (the smaller boys were shepherds), and my pre-pubescent voice wasn’t as high as the voices of the other pre-pubescent boys, so I was cast as Balthazar. The grim king.
The three of us processed up the center aisle of the church, carrying our gifts to the Christ Child, all three singing the first verse: “We three kings of Orient are . . . .”. When we arrived at the manger, we each had our solo, singing the verse about the gift we had brought. Gaspard brought gold (“to crown him again”). Melchior brought frankincense (“incense owns a Deity nigh”).
And Balthazar (the grim one) brought myrrh. You remember:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Well, that was cheery! Merry Christmas to all.
Balthazar’s verse sounds more like something you’d sing on Good Friday than at Christmas.
But that’s as it should be, isn’t it? Good Friday is implicit in Christmas, just as much as Easter is implicit in Good Friday. Christmas celebrates the birth of a child, a human child (whatever else Jesus was, he was human). One thing we know for certain about all human beings is that they will die (as the Prayer Book tells us, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or as some less cheerful sage put it, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”). Born human, Jesus was bound to die human.
We celebrate, at this time of year, two Christmases: What I’ll call “traditional Christmas”, and “Christian Christmas”.
I love “traditional Christmas”. Traditional Christmas is Santa Claus, and Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the kids opening presents on Christmas morning. Traditional Christmas is all the familiar songs: religious (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), and secular (“Santa Baby (just slip a sable under the tree, for me)", fun (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and excruciating (“The Little Drummer Boy”). Christmas trees, and holly, and mistletoe, and yule logs – all those pagan symbols that Christians co-opted – are part of traditional Christmas. What would Christmas be like without “Miracle on 34th Street”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “White Christmas”, or “Elf”?
Some good Christians complain about all the materialism and commercialism that are part of traditional Christmas today. But I like materialism and commercialism. In moderation, of course. When I was growing up, the stores in West Hartford Center starting putting up their Christmas decorations on the day after Thanksgiving, and they stayed up until Little Christmas (or, if you prefer, Epiphany). I loved it. I even love it now, living in Florida, when the plastic snowmen appear in store windows in September along with hurricane supplies. Materialism and commercialism are part and parcel of living in this American republic we love. Let’s face it: we are (most of us, anyway) going to be materialistic, and traditional Christmas gives us an opportunity to mix our materialism with a little joy, fellowship, and kindness.
But, having said all that, the fact is that for many people traditional Christmas can be a sadder time than we want it to be, a time of disappointment and regret, a time when we think more about what we’ve lost than of gifts to give and gifts to receive.
Do you ever feel that way at Christmas? I know I do sometimes.
Why is that? There are probably as many reasons as there are sad people, but I think one reason is that traditional Christmas makes us think back on our childhood, about how Christmas was back then. You may be sad because you have happy memories of Christmas in your childhood, or sad ones. If Christmas was happy when you were a child, if your loving parents and family made sure that Santa gave you all the presents you wanted, and friends and relatives shared the joys of the season, you now feel an aching sense of loss, because Christmas is not as happy now that you are an adult as it was then (or as you remember it was then). If Christmas was unhappy when you were a child, if your parents and family were poor in purse or poor in spirit, and Santa didn’t bring you the presents you hoped for, and the season, if not joyless, was at least not as joyful as it was supposed to be, then you, the grownup, look on Christmas as a cheat and a fraud, a promise made and broken.
This is where traditional Christmas disappoints. But Christian Christmas doesn’t.
Now, I grant you that this phrase I’ve coined, “Christian Christmas” is an awkward, redundant one, and some of you may take offense at it. The Christian Christmas, after all, is the real Christmas, the only Christmas, isn’t it? As the bumper stickers say, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, or “Keep the X in Xmas”.
Personally, I don’t think we need to give up traditional Christmas in order to honor Christian Christmas, but I do think we are less likely to be saddened by traditional Christmas if we remember what Christian Christmas is all about.
We celebrate at this season God coming into the world, God’s Son becoming a human being, God with us, the infant Emmanuel. Of course, there’s sadness in this wondrous time of Christmas, because this little baby is going to grow up to die. But the sadness is overcome because we know that in the life of this little child death will be defeated. We cannot imagine how the infant Jesus, as he lay in his manger, adored by shepherds and kings, could foresee what was going to happen to him, that he would grow up to be arrested, tortured, and killed, and then rise again. But we’ve read the end of the book, and we know, here at the beginning, how the story comes out. We know the sadness, and the triumph.
That’s why, I think, that the real Christmas, the Christian Christmas, is an antidote for the sadness that the traditional Christmas sometimes brings. The Christian Christmas isn’t an ideal of a lost era that we can never recover; it’s not a cheat and a fraud, a disappointment, a broken promise. It’s the promise kept.
So grim Balthazar was right to bring myrrh to the infant King of Israel, and to sing about gloom and sorrow, bleeding and dying. And he and his fellow “Kings of Orient Are” were right to join together (along with the whole congregation) in the last verse of the hymn:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice,
Alleluia the Earth replies.