New Year’s Gift of Vinegar

New Year Blessings, everyone!

Tomorrow is Epiphany Sunday, where we honor in our liturgy the coming of the wise ones from the East to worship a King—who turned out to not be born in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, but was found in Bethlehem, the son of a pauper. Surprise! Even wise people make mistakes!

These three people represent every one of us willing to travel outside our comfort zones to go seeking for the answers to the most important questions of our lives—and they also represent the wisdom in each of us, which has been present with God since the beginnings of the world. We often forget how to tap into that Wisdom we read about in our apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 24: 1-12 or the Word from John 1: 1-5 this week, so I’ll start today with a story about the three wise men.

The story is called “The Secret of the Gifts.” I don’t know the wise soul who wrote it, but it’s designed to be the back story of what the three magi actually gave the Christ child when they arrived. The story depicts each of the three having an encounter with the angel Gabriel as they step toward Christ:  the first, named Melchior by tradition, thinks he holds frankincense to give, but suddenly he sees that the gift he holds in his hands is a flask of vinegar.  The angel tells him he has brought the essence of himself to Christ, as the bitterness of hurts and resentments have spoiled the wine of his life.  Melchior feels ashamed and tries to hide the flask and retreats toward the door.  Gabriel smiles and gently places his hand on Melchior’s arm.  “Wait,” he says. “you must leave your gift.”

“How I wish I could,” says Melchior. How I have 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,” says Gabriel.  “And you must.  This is the only place you can leave it.”

“But this is vile and bitter stuff,” Melchior protests. “What if the child should touch it to his lips?”

“You must leave that worry to heaven,” Gabriel replies.  “There is use even for vinegar.”

There are flasks of vinegar that needs to be named and owned within the heart of each of us at multiple points in our lives—so that we can finally set the painful contents down at the manger or the foot of the cross, and experience the freedom that Jesus offers—but how and when that happens in its fullness is part of the Mystery of God. It will happen when it is ready to. Like Mary Oliver says so wisely, “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine walk before he became St. Augustine?”

Where in your heart are you burdened—maybe caused by the stress of perfectionism—trying to somehow measure up to unforgiving standards you’ve set for yourself? This month of January we are often full of good resolutions to change or improve our lives in one area or another, and so it’s appropriate that we talk about the difference between the perfectionism of trying hard to change our habits vs. being made perfect by God through resting in the Spirit each time we fail or make mistakes.

Perfectionism is everywhere; it’s related to having a legalistic approach to living (as opposed to one of grace and truth) and it’s so painful.

Why? Because perfectionism is filled with judgment, isn’t it? That’s why Jesus says to be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, NOT perfectionistic. Evelyn Underhill says, “It seems so much easier in these days to live morally than to live beautifully. Lots of us manage to live for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day.” Next time you find yourself grumbling, try being a fish. I found this story in my daily devotional, in a clip from Simon Tugwell’s book, Prayer:

St. Ambrose gave his congregation some very good advice. Using the old Christian symbol, he compared them in this stormy world to fish swimming in the sea. And to them too he said: “Be a fish. We must learn how not to be swamped by the situations that we find ourselves in. We must learn how to get through them with a minimum of damage, and a maximum of profit.

One aspect of this is simply learning to get through situations, and not always to want to take them with us. There is a story told of two monks in Japan, traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely woman in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. “Come on, sister,” said Tenzen at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females.” He told Tenzen. “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left that woman there,” said Tenzen. “Are you still carrying her?”

We must learn to pass through situations like a fish rather than carrying them all with us like a snail. We should certainly emerge with a little bit more experience of life, but there is no need to carry more with us than we have to—each situation carries quite enough trouble with it by itself.”

Our God is perfect, not perfectionistic. And how is God perfect? We, as Christians, look to Jesus for that answer. God is perfect in holding in tension the presence of both the good and the evil while loving all of creation, sending rain and sunshine upon both the beautiful and the terrible because in the beginning was Wisdom and the Word, and all things came into being through this wisdom we sometimes hear the New Testament refer to as “Christ” (1 Cor. 1:30). “Everything belongs,” as some say. Jesus invites us to become Whole and Complete in Love, as our Father-Mother in heaven is Whole and Complete in Love.

I like to think that Melchior, the wise man in the story, next asked Gabriel why angels could fly, and this was Gabriel’s reply: because angels take themselves lightly. May the same be true for each of us this year as we, like wise ones often do, look toward a new way of relating to each other and to God. May this year we create a new habit of swimming like fish whenever the judgment of perfectionism rises up within us, and setting down our flasks of vinegar at the foot of the cross (or the manger, if you will) whenever the need arises.

Thanks be to God for the incredible gift of Jesus Christ, our savior, redeemer, mentor, and friend. Amen.

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