Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13-15)
The Gift of the Magi is a short story by O. Henry. The time is Christmas Eve and a young married couple Jim and Della are struggling financially. Despite scrimping, neither one has been able to save enough money to buy a special gift for the other. In desperation to purchase a present, each secretly sells their most prized possession. Jim sells the gold watch that once belonged to his grandfather to buy Della some jewel encrusted hair combs. Meanwhile, Della sells her beautiful knee-length hair to buy Jim a gold chain for his watch. Despite their folly, their love is not diminished. If anything it is enhanced as we read of a tender embrace. The story concludes by relating their gifts to those of the Magi. “The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”
It is a lovely tale and well worth reading during Advent. Here is a link to the story https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/1-the_gift_of_the_magi_0.pdf.
Most of us know that some gifts are wise and some are unwise. I learned about unwise gifts one Christmas early in our marriage when I gave Pat an electric hand-held mixer. It was a very nice mixer as I recall, nicely wrapped and capable of whipping potatoes into a fluffy delight – just the way I like them. To my surprise, she was not overjoyed by my thoughtfulness. I suppose that other men have learned the hard way that when it comes to gifts for their wives, kitchen appliances are unwise – ranking right up there with books on dieting, and tins of anti-aging cream. That said, there is a deeper wisdom to our gift giving that transcends the presents we select. Although retailers would have us believe that the deep wisdom is embodied in the ubiquitous gift card, the Christmas story as told by Matthew offers a different perspective. In particular, the accounts of the Magi and Joseph.
The story of the Magi is the Christian apologetic for giving gifts at Christmas. Even though the celebration of Christmas has its roots in both pagan rituals as well as the birth of Jesus, we Christians tie our gift giving back to those of the Magi, as recorded in Matthew. “After they [the Magi] had heard the king [Herod], they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:9-12)
From what I read, many Biblical scholars believe the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were chosen for their spiritual significance – gold representing Christ’s kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. But the gifts also had monetary worth. We moderns understand the intrinsic value of gold, but probably not the value of the two aromatic resins frankincense and myrrh, which in that day may have been worth more than their weight in gold. Still, there are a lot of details missing from the story. Were these overflowing bags of gold, frankincense and myrrh strapped to the backs of camels, such as festively depicted on our Christmas cards? Or were they more symbolic amounts? Also, what did Mary and Joseph do with the gifts? The gold no doubt would have been welcome to finance their subsequent escape to Egypt. But what did they do with the frankincense and myrrh? Perhaps these were sold to buy supplies for their journey. [If so, I suppose it would be the first instance of Christmas gifts being returned.] Still, this is all speculation. For us Christians today, what we mostly take from this story is the giving of material gifts to celebrate Christmas.
The story of Joseph involves the giving of a different kind of gift. We read, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19) Who could blame Joseph for wanting to divorce Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant? This was not his child, and no doubt he would be shamed if discovered by others. But we read that Joseph was faithful to the law, or in other translations that he was a “righteous” man, so he was going to divorce Mary quietly to protect her from public disgrace. However, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ … When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:20-21, 24)
It is easy to gloss over this part of the Christmas narrative. We read that an angel told Joseph to do something, which he seems to automatically obey. But Joseph had free will and like any of us could have questioned whether what he heard from the angel was real. He was squarely within his rights under the law at that time to simply divorce Mary, which would have been an easy path to take. Yet the far-reaching consequences of a divorce on her and its impact upon Jesus in being raised by a single mom cannot be known. In our country today, single-mother households have a poverty rate roughly five times that of married couple families. There is no reason to believe it would have been any different at the time of Jesus. Yet, Joseph chose the harder path of sacrificing his legal rights for the needs of Mary and her baby – an act of incalculable worth.
So, what did Mary treasure more – the gifts of the Magi or the virtuous act of Joseph? I leave it for the reader to contemplate. But when Joseph chose to stay with Mary and raise Jesus as his own son he made a wise and courageous choice that went beyond his rights under the law. Indeed, on that day mercy triumphed over judgment. And when viewed through the spectrum of Jesus’ future ministry, there is reason to believe that the actions of Joseph, born out of compassion for Mary, were closer to the spirit of Christmas than the gifts of the Magi. For during his ministry, Jesus did not speak much about the giving of gifts other than his command to give to the needy. However, in his teaching on the kingdom of God, Jesus would later say, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 5:20) I wonder whether he was thinking about Joseph when he made this remarkable statement? This is not to denigrate the Magi or their gifts, because they responded to God in the way that was available to them – a perilous journey to find the Christ-child and lavish him with gifts of great worth. Still, gifts are not always measured by their intrinsic material value, but by their emotional worth.
A Christmas Gift
What if this year we give a Christmas gift informed by the story of Joseph – one that is grounded in the pursuit of virtue? Since every aspect of our character affects those around us, any virtue we choose to work on will not only benefit our self but others as well. Paul has some suggestions, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14) And so, what about clothing ourselves with kindnessas a Christmas gift to those around us? Is there anyone who doesn’t yearn to be with someone who is kind rather than harsh; charitable rather than judgmental; and encouraging rather than critical? Or what about clothing ourselves with gentleness and patience as a Christmas gift to others? What a burden it must be to live with a person who is perpetually angry or prone to random outbursts, and what a gift it would be to be around a gentle and patient person.
The possibilities are endless. For example, what about a gift that involves getting help for one’s own addiction? Is there a family member who wouldn’t forgo a pile of presents to have a parent who didn’t drink to excess, or a child who was not using drugs, or a spouse who wasn’t addicted to pornography? The deepest needs of humanity are not to be found in brightly wrapped Christmas presents, but in healthy, loving relationships. Surely the wisest gift and most reflective of the spirit of Christmas is found where our greatest sacrifice meets another person’s greatest need.
This is not a suggestion to abjure traditional Christmas gifts, which could create its own sort of harm for many relationships. Indeed, receiving gifts is a primary love language for some people. And in truth there is also something of the spirit of Christmas in the happiness that comes from generously giving and receiving presents. Still, our thinking can get so locked into material gifts that we can overlook wiser, more enduring gifts – gifts that can enrich our lives and the lives of others. So this year, in addition to presents carefully wrapped and cheerfully adorned by ribbons and bows, why not consider a gift born of the pursuit of virtue to meet the deepest needs of someone you love? May your efforts draw you closer to God and others this Christmas season.