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Monday, December 21, 2009

We Don't Give Many Big Gifts

Not any meaning disrespect, but I laugh a little at all the stress and frustration shoppers suffer during the Christmas season. I do remember those days when our children had specific gift requests, and we tried to find as many of the right toys, etc. that our budget would allow. I still think Christmas gifts are mainly for children, and we still try to find the grandchildren their hearts' desire. Yet, now, living on a limited budget, we have given priority to holiday spirit and togetherness over expensive gift giving.

For example, neither my wife nor I buy each other a Christmas gift, unless it is one of "passing party" variety with little cost. We would rather use that money in different ways during the holidays. And, the families do not exchange expensive gifts anymore. With age comes a definite sensibility of the practicality and draining expense of "giving a wonderful present." In truth, many gifts make people feel as if they must reciprocate with something of equal value, and this is not in the true spirit of Christmas. Maybe it is the true spirit of Visa or MasterCard, but oh, those payments.

The Three Wise Men and the Christmas Story

What does the Bible say about the tradition of Christmas gift giving? Reading scripture may surprise most people. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't say how many wise men came from the east, doesn't mention their names, doesn't say they were kings, and doesn't provide any detail about how they made their journey. The gospel does confirm that the wise men followed a star to Bethlehem to find the Christ child. And, Matthew 2:11 makes mention of three gifts: "...they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, reports, "It (Matthew's gospel) says they (the Magi) are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that’s all we’re really told.” Anything else was legend. “It works quite well as legend,” the Archbishop says. For good measure, he added, "Jesus was probably not born in December at all. Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival.” (Ruth Gledhill, "It's All a Christmas Tall Story,", December 20 2007)

Most decidedly, the essential part of the Christmas story is the baby. God came to earth in human form, as part of creation and absolutely integral to it. That is the heart and essence of it. To Dr. Williams, the first few verses of John's Gospel about the incarnation of the "Word" is the most vital part of the Christmas story. "We are also told that there were witnesses from the fields, shepherds taken by surprise by the news from the angels, rushing down from the hillsides, wondering in awe and then going back to their sheep, transformed by the coming of the baby," Dr. Williams says. And the wise men? They go back transformed too.

Matthew 2:11

Much discussion exists about this passage from Matthew 2:11: "And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him ...." Many biblical scholars insist that the wise men simply did not visit the night of Christ's birth. Instead, these scholars believe they saw Jesus for the first time in a house, not a manger, as a young child, not a baby, so the encounter must have been more than a year after Jesus was born.

Incidentally, the Gospel of Matthew also relates that the Magi first went to King Herod's palace and inquired about the birth of the young Messiah (Savior) asking,"Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come worship him." (Matthew 2:1)

The deceitful Herod, at once, became worried about being dethroned. He directed the three wise men to continue their journey and to inform him if they could trace the birth of such a young king. Evil intentions were definitely afoot. King Herod had one thing in mind -- to destroy the Christ child. That is why he drew the wise men into the situation. 

Herod deceitfully told them, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." (Matthew 2:8) This information would seem to confirm that the visit of the Magi did not take place at Christ's birth, but rather a year or more beyond that time.

After visiting with Jesus and giving Him their gifts, the Magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and they returned to their country by another route. "When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.'" (Matthew 2:13)

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Matthew 2:16) Then, later, after the death of King Herod, Joseph returned to Nazareth with Mary and Jesus. And, Jesus grew up in Nazareth.

The amazed wise men carried the fire back to their own country and built a magnificent cathedral around it so that the people could worship it. Later, they were baptized and, giving all their possessions to the poor, they went about living a life of poverty and preaching the Gospel of Peace until their martyrdom in India.(

The Significance of Gifts

And what about the significance of the expensive gifts brought to Jesus by the wise men? The gifts may have been sold to sustain Joseph's family while in Egypt. Many sources see them as appropriate gifts for Jesus that reflected the aspects of Christ's nature: gold to a king, myrrh to one who will die, and incense, as homage to a God.One story even has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. And yet another tale has the gold being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas.

To me, the gifts could have been anything. As the gospels tell their timeless story, the Magi were the gift of conversion that helped to save the young Jesus' life. As they represented some of the first disciples of the "Word," they helped build a Christian foundation for the church. Their material gifts were thoughtful, well-chosen, and pricey but really meant very little. The gift they received from Jesus as their hearts changed to "gold" was the important transfer of the exchange.

So, anyway, we don't put much time, effort, or sweat into giving gifts at Christmas now. Commercialism, crowds, expense, and brief satisfaction all weigh in this decision. And, I guess, the older we get, the more we appreciate simple pleasures the year around. Still, I do remember the malls, the sales, the rush, and the search for Christmas present treasures with a fond, older, not really. There exists a great simplicity in the true meaning of the season.

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