Gifts as a Symbol of Christmas

From Matthew’s Gospel, we know that Magi from the East journeyed to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus, but we know very little about these Magi. 

We don’t know who they were.  Many scholars speculate that they were priests or astrologers.  Not until the 5th century did anyone refer to them as kings.  Father Benedict Thomas Viviano argues that some of them were likely women.

We don’t know where they came from.  Most scholars believe they came from Babylon or Persia or Arabia, but others have suggested that they may have come from Yemen or India or from as far away as China.

We don’t know how many arrived in Bethlehem.  Because Matthew records three gifts given to Jesus (gold and frankincense and myrrh), many people assume that three Magi brought three gifts (one gift per Magi).  But in Eastern thinking, Magi usually numbered 12.  Perhaps it was a smaller contingent that came to Jesus, or perhaps there were as many as twelve who showed up in Jerusalem and then in Bethlehem. 

And we don’t know when they arrived.  Matthew records that Herod questioned the Magi about the exact time they saw the star, then Herod sends soldiers to strike down all the babies in Bethlehem up to two years of age, so the Magi may have arrived in Bethlehem up to two years after the birth of Jesus.

What we do know is that the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, and the giving of gifts has been forever connected to the celebration of Christmas.  Modern Christmas carols even include the story of a little drummer boy presenting to Jesus the gift of his drumming.

Yet the greatest of the Christmas gifts was not gold or frankincense or myrrh but the gift that God gave to all humankind: the gift God gave of himself, coming into our world as one of us to live among people and to die for us.

Jesus himself told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  In Romans 5:8, Paul writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” 

The greatest gifts are those that are given out of love.  And love that is given is the greatest gift of all.  Great love is what God gave to us in his willingness to be born as one of us.  And great love is what Christ gave to us in laying down his life for us.

O. Henry tells a wonderful Christmas story entitled The Gift of the Magi.  It is the story of Jim and Della, a young couple who are deeply in love with each other.  On their first Christmas together, each wants to give to the other the best Christmas gift possible.  The problem is they are desperately poor.  Della wants to buy for her husband a platinum chain for his cherished gold pocket watch, but she can scrape together only $1.87.  Out of her love for Jim, Della makes the ultimate sacrifice: She cuts and sells her beautiful, long, thick, brown hair.  From the sale of her hair, she comes up with enough money to buy the chain.

Meanwhile, Jim sets out to buy a lovely set of combs for Della’s gorgeous hair.  Not having sufficient funds, Jim makes the ultimate sacrifice: He sells his cherished pocket watch to buy the beautiful combs.

Both Della and Jim sacrifice their prized possessions to give a gift of love to the other that is no longer useful.  You might conclude that what they did was a foolish waste of their resources and that everything turned out wrong.  Indeed, in the final paragraph of the story, O. Henry concedes, “I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.”

Yet in the next lines, O. Henry affirms the worth of their gifts on the basis of the love with which they were given.  He writes, “But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. Everywhere they are the wisest.  They are the magi.”

When we give love, we imitate the gift God gave in giving himself.


One response to “Gifts as a Symbol of Christmas”

  1. Therese Harper says :

    Absolutely beautiful!! Thank you, Tom!!  Therese

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

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