What a great day with such a fine story. Today is the celebration of Epiphany, the day when the magi (wise men) appear before Mary and Joseph to present gifts to the child who would become king of the Jews. It is such a wonderful account – remember, the birth narratives are theology in the form of story to tell us about the adult Christ. Magi from the East – wise, rich Gentiles – come to honor the Jewish messiah. It is clear that Matthew wants us to know that Jesus transcends the tribe – leaders of the world come to him. And, as smart as they were, the magi needed to stop in Jerusalem and ask the biblical scholars how to find their way. That is a wonderful shout out for Sunday school teachers and good Bible study! There is gold, frankincense and myrrh – costly gifts. Matthew doesn’t mention camels but they appear in Isaiah so we include them in all of our nativity scenes. What a wonderful story. As Matthew tells it the circle keeps getting larger and larger. The genealogy of chapter one sets Jesus squarely within Jewish royalty – son of David – then in chapter two he becomes Lord of all nations. For God so loved ………….. the world ….
Gift giving goes way back – obviously way before Christ. Nearly every culture that I have read about includes the giving of gifts to God or the gods and, in turn, honoring loved ones or powerful ones with gifts. Giving gifts is simply a part of being human. Honoring the birth of a leader is ancient as well so Christians took on gift giving as a way to honor the birth of Jesus. Santa Claus goes back to St. Nicholas, a real, live Bishop in the 4th Century from Myra in Asia Minor, today a part of Turkey. He was known to be kind and very generous with the poor. One legend has it that he would anonymously drop money down a chimney and, sure enough, some drying socks caught them one day and that began the tradition of the Christmas stocking. St. Nicholas, in other lands, was called Father Christmas, Christkind (that morphed into Kris Cringle), and of, course, Santa Claus. In 1863 the artist Thomas Nast started a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly that took twists and turns until it landed on a white bearded man with a large tummy and a red suit in the drawing in 1881. No, Coca Cola did not invent the red suited Santa but in 1931 the artist Haddon Sundblom drew Santa replacing the pipe with a can of Coke and that linked the not so soft drink (they still put cocaine in it!) to the red suited gift giver. But enough of Santa history.
I enjoy receiving gifts and giving gifts. It is a joy to bring pleasure and surprise to loved ones. Sure, I can complain with the best of them about the commercialization of Christmas but that does not take away from the joy of giving a gift and receiving a gift. At one level it is all about pure joy and grace. Gifts are just that - not earned – they are freely given and freely received. I’ve learned that it is important to receive graciously. Years ago I would feel embarrassed or awkward when traveling in very poor areas of the world and being offered gifts. Yet, the honor and respect given to the donor by graciously receiving is part and parcel to mutuality and equality. To this day, I am moved by the generous gifts of so many, including my vivid memory of poor Haitians sharing fish bread and coffee out on a work site in the mountains. It is a joy to give and to receive.
The last stanza of “In the Deep Mid Winter” that speaks of offering gifts to the Christ child echoes in my soul.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him; give my heart.
We define our lives by the gifts we give. I remember some years back that a certain politician, to remain nameless, advocated the reduction of public money for human services since charitable donations should take care of the needy. When his tax forms became public it was shown that he gave away less than 1% of his income. A fraud. A hypocrite. Yes, much of our true life is defined by what we give.
Oh, the gifts we cherish, the gifts we hold tight, the gifts we give freely. A friend sent this story of her adult son Dan and his three year old daughter, Cecelia. From her Christmas letter:
It was morning and Dan was hurrying Cecelia along because he had a busy day of work ahead and he needed to get her to preschool. “Finish your breakfast Cecilia, put on your shoes, where is your jacket?” I can just imagine the conversation: “No, I don’t have time to read you a story or do a puzzle. I just don’t have time!” Cecelia calmly responded, “But Daddy, I have lots of time! I can give you some.”
The most important gift we can give is our time – to listen, to talk, to play, even to sit quietly and do nothing but love. The gift of time is the gift of care, the gift of one’s self, one’s heart.
Today is all about the time that we give to God, to family, to the other. Blessings to you in the holiness and joy of gift giving.