The Gifts Of The Magi

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This passage comes from the story about the three magi, foreigners, who come from their distant lands to do homage to the child born to Mary in the village of Bethlehem. Magi was originally a term used for the priestly caste in Persia, it was used to describe those who were thought of as having more than human knowledge. Matthew translates these Magi as astrologers. Two Old testament verses, Psalm 72: 10, and Isaiah 60: 6, are attributed for having translated the word to mean ‘kings.’ This is less important maybe than the fact that they are Gentiles, outsiders to the covenant. That they are gentiles is important. This is seen in biblical scholarship as a prophetic sign implying the future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles.

On their arrival in Israel they go to Herod’s palace and inquire as to where the newborn king of the Jews might be found. This inquiry is, of course, disturbing to Herod who understands himself to be the king of the Jews. He calls together his chief priests and scribes asking them where this prophesied event was to take place. They quote the scriptures telling him that the child was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Herod then sends for the Magi in secret, telling them to go to Bethlehem and, when they find the child, to return to him and tell him where he is so that, “I too may go and do him homage.” (verse 8) The Magi go off to Bethlehem, following the star, and find the child cradled in his mother’s arms, in the rough stable where he was born, and they prostrate themselves before this innocent child, then give him their gifts. We are told that they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they, “depart for their country by another way.” (verse 12)

So what about these gifts? In the Christian tradition these gifts have been understood to have symbolic and prophetic meanings. Gold, for example, represents the recognition of this child not just as the King of the Jews, but as the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace that had been prophesied for centuries through the prophets. The Frankincense, had medicinal qualities, but was also commonly used in those times as a part of religious ceremonies. It too was a valuable commodity. The sweet smelling smoke of the incense rising into the air represented the prayerful honor and praise going up to God. Myrrh, again an expensive item in those days, was an oil that gave off a sweet odor and it was commonly used to anoint bodies before their burial. This is thought to prefigure the death of this child. But, unlike any other before or after it, this death had to be undergone, not because of the laws of nature, but because it would be necessary for the universal salvation of humanity.

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This story seems to stick out like a sore thumb in the birth narratives. The magi are the only non-Jews to be spoken about relating to the birth of Jesus, and only in Matthew’s gospel. Of all the events given to us in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, this one seems to be purposefully prophetic in its characters and its images. Suffice it to say that these Magi see the truth about this child and willingly come from afar to humbly do him homage. Herod, on the other hand, is interested only in self-preservation. He sees this birth as a threat to his political power. He is unwilling to bend to this child whose birth was prophesied in the scriptures. He fails to accept the truth, because it does not fit with his self-conceived views of reality.

This same thing is happening in our own time. There are many who, like Herod, simply refuse to accept the truth that this child brings into the world. But their denial does not change that truth. It could not , and can not stop the truth from being fulfilled. This truth is far greater than all of their petty denials. Christ has come. He has saved us and we have been freed from the chains of sin and death. Because this is true, we Christians are called to bear witness to this truth with our lives, even if it means that we must pick up heavy crosses and take on his burden. We can do this because we believe in Jesus and because we know that he is present to us now, in this moment, in this place, and he will not abandon us. We know that he did this for us out of infinite love. We take joy in acknowledging his kingship, and bow down and worship him without hesitation, or pretense. That is why we celebrate Christmas. Because this birth gives everything its truest meaning. Because of this birth, we recognize that every human life is precious and worthy of being honored, protected and defended, from conception to natural death. Because God did this for all his children, we are called to promote justice, to turn away from all things that do damage to human dignity. When Jesus came down to us from heaven, letting go of divinity in order to become one with us, he lifted our humanity up to heaven. This is the human dignity that we are called now to protect and defend from all that is destructive to it. Thanks be to God!

Lord, in our celebration of Christmas, we raise our voices in praise of your great gift to us in Jesus. We sing our hosannahs in humble thanks for your great mercy. For it is in Jesus that we find our meaning and our purpose. Strengthen our faith, increase our hope and fire our love for you and for our neighbors so that we may reveal Jesus to others with our every thought, word, and deed. We pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.