Sunday, January 11, 2009

Little Drummer Boy

First Sunday After Epiphany – Year B (BCP)
(Propers for Epiphany)
Isaiah 60:1-6,9; Psalm 72:1-2,10-17; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Sunday, January 11, 2009 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

This general time of year, from Advent through Christmas on to Epiphany is so rich in imagery. Scripture provides us with a rich tapestry of stories describing the events which we have been re-living over the past month or so. In reality, when we examine the stories, we find that there is not just one story, but several stories, each with its own emphasis. The birth narrative from Luke that we hear on Christmas Eve gives us one picture – that of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew, just before the story we hear today, provides us with a much more truncated version of the birth narrative, saying merely that Jesus was born. No mention of the manger. No mention of angels or shepherds. And then the narrative that we have today gives us another picture, that of the coming of the magi. Because of the way the story flows, we don’t know exactly when the magi arrived. Was it the night of his birth? Probably not. It was most certainly sometime later. Perhaps as much as a year later.

But in our own tradition, in our own minds, we have linked these various stories together to create a single story that attempts to unify the various themes and images. We have woven our own tapestry. Or rather, maybe a patchwork quilt is a more apt analogy. The way we envision the whole scene, is in all likelihood, a composite of various events. Mary giving birth to Jesus in a dirty stable; the angels announcing the birth of the Messiah to a bunch of shepherds; a star coming to rest over the manger; the arrival of magi from the East, bearing gifts worthy of a king – gold, frankincense, myrrh. This is how we have come to remember the tradition, historically inaccurate though it may be.

But even though not necessarily historically accurate, even though it probably did not happen quite the way we recall the story, whether parts of it even happened at all, the tradition we have come to remember, that we pass down from one generation to the next, is nonetheless true. This tradition, even in its potential inaccuracies, holds central truths about the one we call Messiah, about our relationship with him, about how we react and respond to him.

Like so many of the images of this time of year, we all have our favorites that readily come to mind when we recall the story. In all probability, the images are not quite correct, but as I said, they are nonetheless true – true because at their root, these images convey the core message of what this time of year is all about. And our favorites say something about what part of that core message is most important or most meaningful to each of us. When I think of Christmas and Epiphany, or rather the conflated version we traditionally recall, one of the images that stands out for me is the Little Drummer Boy. I’m sure you all recall the song:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum.
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but right before Christmas, I heard that “Little Drummer Boy” is viewed as one of the most annoying Christmas songs, because of the incessant “pa rum pum pum pum.” Be that as it may, it is still one of my favorite images not only of Christmas, but more so of Epiphany.

Specifically, what comes to mind is the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special that used to air on television before Christmas every year starting in the late 60s. “The Little Drummer Boy” was probably my all-time favorite Christmas show, even more so than “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And while I have not seen it in, oh, probably 30 years, I can still clearly recall it. Whenever I hear that song, it’s like a VCR turns on in my head. I can almost see and hear the whole show. And now, as I reflect back on it, I dare say, its message had a profound influence on my personal theology of Christmas in general and the Epiphany in particular.

In the television show, which greatly expands on the song, our hero, Aaron, a poor little boy, happens to be in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. He comes upon the stable where Jesus has just been born. As is typical of most manger scenes, there is a crowd standing around admiring this awe-inspiring, newborn baby. Shepherds and townsfolk. Sheep, cows, oxen. This is obviously a special child, worthy of adoration. This is particularly evidenced by the arrival of three kings from the East, bearing gifts worthy of a king – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If kings are bringing gifts to this child, he must himself be a king.

Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

If a king, then Aaron feels that he himself must also give a gift in honor of this king’s birth. But what to give? Aaron is a peasant boy. The only thing he has in the whole world is his drum.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

And then it occurs to him. He has only one thing he could possibly give.

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

And so, that’s exactly what Aaron does.

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

And even though nothing could compare to such gifts as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Aaron’s gift of music, his gift of himself, was indeed pleasing to the child king.

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

The overall story of Epiphany is a very important one to us Christians. All the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah assumed that he would be king of the Jews. In fact, when the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they ask Herod “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” But they themselves are not Jews. And yet, they honor Jesus not as king of the Jews, but as their king as well. These kings, recognizing the kingship in this newborn child. It is not the recognition of one king to another, a recognition of equals, but rather the recognition by subjects of the one who is their superior, who they themselves, though kings, willingly bow down and worship.

Through Jesus’ life and ministry, we see him first ministering to his own people, to the Jews. But over time, his ministry expands outward, including ministry to the Gentiles, to non-Jews, as well. Through his ever expanding ministry, Jesus proved himself to not only be the king of the Jews, but to be the king of all humanity. But what I find interesting is the fact that even though initially thought to only be king of the Jews, the very first people to adore him, other than his parents, of course, the very first people to fall down in worship, the first to bring gifts in recognition of his kingship, were the magi, non-Jews. What I find interesting is that from the beginning, it was not Jews who recognized Jesus as Lord, but rather the Gentiles, in the form of the magi. From the beginning of Jesus’ life, through the visit of the magi, it was recognized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah come for all humanity. It would just take the rest of humanity a little while to catch on to that fact.

Through the celebration of Epiphany, the church bears witness that God is reaching out visibly and powerfully to all peoples of the world” (Cook, 85). And that witness is born by those who came from far away, who first brought gifts to a newborn child, lying in a manger, to the one who even pagan kings recognized as Lord of all humanity, as the savior and redeemer of us all.

Did the magi really arrive in Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born? Or did they arrive some time later? Or did the story really happen at all? We have no way of knowing with certainty. But the image of their arrival, regardless of the historical veracity does, nonetheless, present a fundamental truth about the Epiphany.

While Epiphany is certainly about the revelation, the witness to the fact that Jesus came into the world for all humanity, for me it is also about, and in some ways even more about, the gifts. It is about the gifts that we give to Jesus, the ways that we show that we recognize that he is indeed our Messiah, our king. For me, the image of foreign, pagan kings bringing gifts to the one that they came to recognize as their king is a model of what it means to be a Christian. This group of pagans, who did not know our God, certainly did not know Jesus, somehow came to not only know him, but to believe that he was indeed the Messiah, and not just the Messiah for the Jews, but that he was even their Messiah, the Messiah for all humanity. They acted on their faith in this knowledge, and in response, brought gifts of great value, gifts worthy of a king, to lay before Jesus – gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts brought by the magi almost certainly had some significance. All three gifts would have been sufficiently valuable to be considered typical gifts for a king: gold, for its sheer value; frankincense, for its use as a perfume; and myrrh, an oil for anointing. But there is also a likely prophetic symbolism behind these three gifts: gold as a symbol of Jesus’ kingship on earth; frankincense as a symbol of Jesus’ priestly status; and myrrh, an oil used for embalming, as a symbol of the unique importance of his death (Wikipedia). These gifts are recognition of not only the fact that this child is special, but also of who he is and the importance of his life and even his death.

In following the model of the magi, we too are called to act on our faith in this Messiah, and to likewise bring gifts of great value to lay before Jesus. But we are not kings with great treasures. So what could we possibly give that is worthy of a king? That’s where Aaron, the Little Drummer Boy, comes in. He gave a gift that was far more valuable than anything the magi could have given Jesus. He gave the only thing that he had to give – the gift of himself.

Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

What gift will you give our King? What gift do you have that will be so pleasing to him, that upon giving it, you will be able to say:

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

“Biblical Magi”.
Wikipedia. (10 January 2009).

Cook, Stephen L., et al. New Proclamation: Year B, 2008-2009, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

1 comment:

katty said...

I love the drummer sound, i feel energizer every time that i listen music where the drummer is notable. i think any band could be sustainable itself without a drummer.
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