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The Magi's Gifts
by Birgit Oberhofer | January 2, 2011
Scripture Reflection for Sunday, January 2, 2011
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
“And what did you get for Christmas?” I still remember my classmate’s questions when we came back to school after the Christmas holidays. And we would proudly talk about the newest technological gadgets, games, books and clothes we have received on Christmas.
The week before Christmas, I went with a group of young adult Catholics and African American Muslims to distribute sandwiches to the homeless. It was quite striking to see how many people have to live on the streets in this frigid weather and how thankful they are for a piece of bread, a tooth brush and some socks – and the fact that we indeed thought of them!
This year, my favorite Christmas gift was an orange from one of my co-workers. Before leaving for the holidays, she would walk around the building with a big bag of oranges from California. With a big smile and a lot of love, she gave everybody an orange and a big hug, whishing us Merry Christmas before leaving for the holidays. It was the most precious orange I have ever eaten.
But what is the reason behind this tradition to give to the poor and exchange gifts with our families and friends in this Christmas season? What is the message that lies behind our gifts?
Have you seen the “Digital Story of the Nativity” that circulated on facebook the week before Christmas? In this story, Mary, Joseph and the Magi are using modern technology to prepare their trip to Bethlehem and to communicate with one another. At a certain point, Balthazar emails Melchior: “Have you already thought of a gift to the baby?” - “Me and Gaspar bought ours here: www.amazon.com.” Melchior replies. In our world, even gifts are only one click away.
The story of the Magi that is only told in the Gospel of Matthew goes a little different. Back then there was no amazon and no gmail. There was no way to quickly buy a gift for the new-born king of the Jews and book your trip to Bethlehem online. The story describes the events in a much more dramatic way. The Magi follow the star to Herod, who is not very excited to hear about the supposedly “new king of the Jews.” It’s a story of lies, conspiracy, abuse and even murder. Herod has much other things in his mind than giving homage to the child who may grow to become his rival. Most likely, this story is not so much an historic account, but a description of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that we have heard in the first reading: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”
The story of the Magi is full of symbols for Christ’s mission on this earth and it anticipates his cruel death on the cross. In fact, the three gifts brought to Baby Jesus by the Magi have a deep spiritual meaning: Gold stands for the kingship in earth; frankincense is a symbol of priesthood; and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death. Only one week after we have celebrated Christmas with its lights and candles, gifts and cookies, peace and harmony (hopefully) in our families, we are reminded that Christmas is not “an idyll, but a scandal: God became flesh!” as the late German Bishop Klaus Hemmerle wrote.
The Magi find the Baby Jesus after an adventurous journey. Moreover, they find Jesus at a surprising place. Shouldn’t the new king of the Jews be born in a palace and not in that simple place? Yet they allow God to surprise them and they allow Jesus to transform them. Giving the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they acknowledge Jesus’ mission as king, priest and savior even in the unexpected circumstances and they “prostrate themselves” to give him homage. After this encounter they “depart for their country by another way.”
Christmas is not only an idyllic family celebration. It is a life changing event. It is also for us the encounter with the Living God who wants to communicate Himself in God’s Son Jesus Christ - who became one of us so that we may become one with God. Isn’t this an event that should also cause us to kneel down and offer our most precious gifts? Isn’t it an event that should open our hearts to receive God’s immense gift of self for us? Shouldn’t it open our hands to pass on the Good News of God’s love to others? This is what all the “giving” is about. It’s not about how much we receive from our family and friends (or from Santa), but what we have received from God on that day more than two thousand years ago. The gifts we give to each other are part of this overwhelming gift of God to us. Our gifts should direct our thoughts to Christ and when we pass on this gift to others, we show that all human beings are part of this all-surrounding, all-surpassing love of God. It doesn’t need to be the latest gadget or the newest cloth – one orange or a toothbrush can be enough to show our neighbors our love.
Let us remember this Sunday, that we celebrate Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ, with every Eucharist. Every Sunday, when we receive Christ through the bread and the cup we are invited to kneel down, offer our gifts and return home “by another way”, passing on the love we’ve received to our brothers and sisters.
Birgit Oberhofer is originally from Munich, Germany where she graduated from Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität with a Master of Arts in Education Science, Psychology and Theology in 1999. After two years of formation in Italy she became a consecrated member of the Focolare Movement, a lay ecclesial movement, living in one of their houses in Cologne, Germany. There she worked as a program developer and grant writer for one of the biggest charity organizations in Germany, running programs in the field of Adult Formation and Social Work. In December 2007 she moved to Chicago and became the Assistant Director of Catholics on Call in July 2008.