A little extra research was required this week, as I know almost nothing about frankincense – other than as a gift to the Baby Jesus.
Quite a bit has been written about how the fragrant resin of frankincense was used in ancient times. And, as it was used extensively for ceremonial embalming, perfuming the dead to disguise the smell of decay, it is often cited as prophetic – given to Jesus, a child born to die.
More than its scarcity and value, however, I was taken with the tedious process of harvesting frankincense. It comes from a raggedy shrub of a tree I’d never heard of – the Boswellia – grown in places mostly stark and dry. And gleaning the rich resin it produces is a fine art in itself.
Using traditional hand tools, harvesters carefully carve away small sections of bark, a practice that, when done by an expert, does not harm the tree. Much like maple tree tapping, this process causes the tree to seep a thick gum. Unlike tapping, however, the frankincense farmers do not collect the sap right away.
They let the resin dry on the tree. When it has hardened, it is carefully scraped off, ready to be distilled into a precious oil. And with each successive harvest, the frankincense becomes more rich and valuable.
It is a labor of love.
Now, I do not speak Greek or Hebrew. Nor am I a Bible scholar. Some of the historical accounts and lessons are really hard to take and I am not always sure I understand exactly what God is trying to tell us.
But when the Baby Jesus is given frankincense, a gift believed to have been more valued than gold, it just has to mean something.
And, my lovelies, when I look at the tedious process of harvesting frankincense next to Jesus’ life on earth, the word I keep hearing is sacrifice.
Every part of the harvesting process involves great care and greater sacrifice – by both the harvesters and the tree. When pierced, the tree is said to bleed resin. After some weeks, the resin tears, as they are so aptly and beautifully named, are collected and processed. It is not done by a machine that covers acres of orchards. The tears come slowly and in very small batches.
Every part of Jesus’s life, from leaving Heaven to His return home, was lived at the sacrifice of comfort, peace, and royalty. He experienced a lowly birth, risky escape to Egypt, living much of his adult life without a home, and dying in the most cruel way imaginable. I would expect that only His resurrection and the promuse of a glorious return to Heaven would have lightened the load of His last days on Earth.
But I am afraid many of us have lost sight of personal sacrifice. I’m not speaking of those who regularly put their very lives on the line for the good of others, or those random acts of kindness that temporarily take us out of our way or comfort zones. I know many who have been more than generous to those with less.
What I do fear, though, is that we have entered a time in history when those of us with the most are not willing to risk, let alone sacrifice our wealth or security for those who have neither. When I look around and see how political and economic decisions are made without regard for the plight of the defenseless, I am haunted by the fact that I didn’t choose where I was born or to whom. And too often I watch the news and say “…there but for the grace of God is me and my family.”
We do not let ourselves be dangerously soft-hearted, freely opening the gate to comfort and opportunity to those just as human as we are – but perhaps not the same color or faith or culture – because some of them, like some of us, are not trustworthy – or worthy at all, left out simply because it is perceived they would not add substantially more to what we already have.
We are not willing to live smaller or shall we say more “rustically” so that there is room enough for all of God’s creatures. Or to clean up the unattractive messes of previous owners and landlords because building anything new is way more appealing.
We are not willing to accept restrictions on ourselves to maintain the qualities of our water, air, and land because it makes things “so much more expensive.” (And I wonder what our future generations and the other citizens of the world will do when the future expense of clean-up is unavoidable.)
Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Maybe I’m reading something into the story of Jesus birth that just isn’t there.
I can’t help but think, though, that when the Magi were packing for their journey to find the King of the Jews, they did not consider what was convenient or cheap. They did not skimp because they didn’t even know Him yet.
No, they knew that whatever they found and whoever they met was worthy of their very best. He would be worth the sacrifice of making the long journey and presenting remarkable gifts, cherished because they were precious, protected because they were valued. He was worth the sacrificial gift of frankincense. And He still is.
So, on this second Monday of the season, I wish the same for you: the blessings of giving and surrendering. The blessing of less. The blessing of sacrifice.