The Giving

WelCom December 2018: Joy Cowley With such eagerness I carry my gifts towards the place of the newborn King. I am like a guest hurrying to a wedding, and I cannot…

WelCom December 2018:
Joy Cowley

The Giving Archdiocese of Wellington

Joy Cowley. Photo: Weston Cowley

With such eagerness I carry my gifts towards the place of the newborn King. I am like a guest hurrying to a wedding, and I cannot help but note that my golden gift is as large and as finely wrapped as any I have seen.

At a point in the road, not far from the stable, I am stopped by an angel who wants to know what I am carrying. It pleases me to tell her that the package contains the treasure of a lifetime to be given to the Holy One.

‘Open it,’ she says.

‘What? Do you know how long it took me to wrap this? Or what the wrapping cost?’

‘Open the parcel,’ she says, folding her arms and firmly straddling the path.

I am reluctant but have no choice. Still, once the wrapping is removed, there are some fine treasures to display. I point them out to her. A lifetime of regular church attendance. Tithing for the poor. Hours spent visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved. A mountain of cakes baked for fundraising stalls. Letters to the newspaper on moral issues. Marches for peace, for justice, for the right to live. No one could be ashamed of such gifts. They are indeed fit for a king.

There is no expression on the angel’s face. She looks at each in turn and says, ‘What else have you got?’

‘What do you mean – what else?’ I am angry at her lack of enthusiasm. ‘Do you realise what sacrifice went into these?’

‘He does not need sacrifice,’ she says. ‘Come now. There must be another gift.’

I hesitate. ‘Well, yes, there is. But what I have just shown you is my finest gold. The frankincense – if I can call it that – is quite ordinary, hardly fit for the occasion.’

‘Let me see it.’

With some embarrassment, I take from my luggage, a plainly-wrapped parcel, hastily tied with gardening twine. It is clumsily put together and when I pull the string, the contents spill out over the path. Nothing spectacular. A sandcastle built with one of the children. A blackened saucepan from the birthday dinner that miraculously survived a small fire. Toast crumbs, teaspoons, a teddy bear and a small tractor found when making the big bed. Silly ghost stories told on the beach under a full moon. Patti at her first communion, wanting to know how Jesus got from her stomach into her heart. The holiday the tent that fell down. The pear tree we planted on the grave of a pet mouse.

The angel seems interested. She looks closely at everything and smiles. Then she picks up four shoes and a bottle of fragrant oil. ‘What about these?’

My embarrassment intensifies. ‘My husband and I – we – we massage each other’s feet.’

The angel gently puts them back. ‘Beautiful,’ she says. ‘All of it beautiful gift.’ She stands tall again and looks at me with clear eyes that seem as deep as forever. ‘Now for the third package.’

I shake my head. ‘I’m sorry. There is no third gift.’

Everyone has myrrh to offer,’ she says.

‘Not I. Myrrh is the bitter herb of death. It has not been a part of my experience. You see, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I don’t seem to have the problems that plague other poor souls. My life has been just one blessing after another.’

‘Myrrh is the herb of death – and resurrection,’ said the angel.

‘It is necessary for Advent journey. Without it the stable is empty.’

I don’t understand what she’s talking about. ‘Sorry,’ I repeat. ‘Gold and frankincense, yes, but myrrh, no. Will you please stand aside and let me pass?’

‘Why don’t we look?’ says the angel, indicating my luggage.

‘All right, then. Look!’ I throw it open at her feet. ‘See? Not a drop of myrrh in sight!’

‘What’s this?’ she says.

‘What’s what?’

She is pointing to a half-hidden bundle wrapped in stained newspaper.

‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen it before. It must belong to someone else.’ But as I say it, my stomach tightens, and my skin turns cold.

‘Open it,’ says the angel.

I step back, ‘No. I can’t. It’s not – not mine…’

‘You know you must open it,’ the angel insists, and her voice is soft.

My hands shake as I pick up the package and begin the unwrapping. Yes, it is all here. I thought I had forgotten these things, or put them away forever, but no, they are present and as alive as ever. The childhood cries that went unheard. The playground taunts. The teacher who disliked me. The struggles and rejections.

The pain wells up as real now as it was then, and my vision becomes blurred. I want to put the parcel down.

‘Please continue,’ says the angel.

I already know what will be in the next layer. The hurt of the child within the adult. Bereavements. Losses. Failures. Feelings of inadequacy. Criticisms I could not handle. Recurring nightmares. Unspoken fears.

I am crying now, and I can’t go on. ‘How can you call it gift!’ I shout at the angel. ‘It’s all so – so ugly!’

‘No, no!’ she says. ‘It is all unborn resurrection, and resurrection is the beauty of God!’

The next layer is worse. It reveals all the hurts I have inflicted on others, from careless gossip to deliberate betrayals. There are angry words that could not be taken back, judgements that shut out people who did not share my beliefs or lifestyle. Arrogance. Intolerance. Condescension.

I sit down in the middle of the path.

‘Come,’ said the angel. ‘There is only a little more.’

But she is wrong. There is no more. The last layer of wrapping reveals nothing but darkness. Every part of my life has been surrendered and now there is simply this tomb, this emptiness.

‘You are very close,’ the angel says.

I don’t reply for I am lost in the darkness. But wait! In the depth of the night, I discover a light that grows as I gaze at it.

‘What do you see?’ the angel asks.

The light is increasing and seems to be a living presence. My heart rises like a phoenix. ‘It’s – it is – a star!’

‘The truth of myrrh,’ said the angel. ‘Keep looking.’

The light expands to fill my being with a beauty that is both as new and as old as eternity. How could I have not known this? I gaze in wonder, hushed with awe. For there, in the centre of all this brilliance, is the newborn Jesus.

‘The Giving’ by Joy Cowley has been published previously in Marist Messenger and NZ Catholic.