Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Gifts of the Magi

Today, on this Sunday after the beginning of the New Year, the Christian calendar reminds us of the revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles in the persons of the magi from the East.  Called Magi (or astrologers), they are also known as the three kings and as the three wise men.  Wise men.  Someone a few years ago humorously suggested the story might have been written differently if the main characters were "three wise women."  Had they been wise women, it is said, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable and made a casserole.  Their gifts would have been disposable diapers.

Be that as it may, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi with their gifts for the Christ child.  As we go through life on our journey of faith, are we more like the Magi or more like the shepherds?  I would suggest we are more like the Magi.  Consider that the shepherds didn't have to follow a silent star but were given specific directions by an angel (who may have had a booming voice to be heard over the fields at night) followed by an angelic choir singing songs of praise.  The shepherds found just what they were told about.  The Magi, on the other hand, had to follow a star visible only at night.  They also ended up being manipulated by the wicked Herod and while they rejoiced when they found the object of their search, they left quickly to return home.

Isn't our life's journey more like that?  We are not always sure where the direction of our lives is going and we don't have angels clearly pointing out what we are to do.  We, instead, have to place our faith in God who will provide us with the light to see our way (knowing that at times there will be points of darkness).

And what of the gifts the Magi brought?  What gifts do we have to bring to the Christ child?  We can offer the gift of our lives but how do they compare with those three gifts of the Magi?

The gift of gold is a reminder of the kingship of Christ.  Gold, in its purest form, is a soft metal that is malleable.  In order to be hardened for use it must have an alloy such as copper or silver.  Are our lives malleable so that they are pushed and pulled by the cares and temptations of the world, or do we need an alloy?  I would suggest that our alloy should be our commitment to live out the call of our baptism to be disciples of Christ.

The gift of frankincense is a symbol of the divinity of Christ.  In Psalm 141 we are told that our prayers rise like incense before the Lord.  But good incense is a blend of fragrances.  Are our prayers often too much of the same kind - "Give me this, Lord," or "Help me, God."  Should not our prayers have a good blend of prayers of adoration and praise as well as thanksgiving for the gifts we have received?

The gift of myrrh is one we would rather not think about.  Myrrh, as we know, is a spice that was used to embalm or preserve the bodies of the dead.  This gift of the Magi was a reminder to us of the real reason why Jesus came among us - to suffer and die to bring about our redemption.  We, of course, would like our lives to always be filled with the joy we experience at Christmas or Easter but we well know that there are many Good Fridays in our lives.  We also know that as God was with Jesus at his Good Friday, God will also be with us when we face life's difficulties.

The Magi's story ends with them returning home by a different route.  What route are we going to take - the route to Herod to be manipulated by the world and its illusions, or the route given to us by God?  If we take God's route we know that there may still be bumps and potholes on the way but God will be with us as we experience them.

There was a legend that says that the three wise men were of different ages.  Caspar was a very young man, Balthazar was in his middle age and Melchior was an old man.  Upon arriving in Bethlehem, they took themselves to the place of Jesus' birth and went in one at a time.  When Melchior, the old man, went into the place, there was no one there but a very old man with whom he quickly bonded.  They spoke together of memory and gratitude.

Middle-aged Balthalzar then went in to find a middle-aged teacher and they talked about leadership and responsibility.  When young Caspar entered, he met a young prophet and they spoke together of reform and promise.

When they all had gone in singly, they then went in together to offer their gifts and they found an infant.  Then they understood.  Jesus speaks to every stage of life.  The old hear the call to integrity and wisdom.  The middle-aged hear about generativity and responsibility and the young hear the call to indentity and intimacy.

Whatever age you are, may the divine child who came to bring us peace speak to you and may you respond wholeheartedly as you enter another year of divine grace.


  1. I agree with that brilliant person who suggested a different story with three 'wise women.' Gold, frankincense and myrrh are pretty strange gifts to bring a new baby...disposable diapers, a bassinet and maybe a new blanket would have been much more practical. Unfortunately, the practicality of women wasn't considered very noteworthy back then...hey! Now you have a new topic for your next blog! :-)

  2. What a lovely and thoughtful reflection Neil. Thanks for this. I do so love the idea of each magi finding someone who speaks to them where they are.

  3. I've been thinking of your metaphors using gold, frankincense and myrrh since yesterday!

    What you wrote about prayer is so true. For a few years now I've been trying to use the Lord's prayer as a guide ~ first giving praise and honor to the Creator of all. It has made a difference for me.

    Thank you again for this wonderful insight.