One of O. Henry’s most delightful and memorable short stories bore the simple title, “The Gift of the Magi.” People of my vintage may recall it was the tale of a poor, young couple, very much in love.
The surprise ending revealed the young woman had cut off and sold her long and lustrous beautiful hair to buy the Christmas gift of a precious watch chain for her new husband … only to discover that he in turn had pawned his heirloom pocket watch to purchase a gorgeous comb for her.
Genuine love considers no sacrifice too great, and inevitably is itself the greatest gift of all.
Perhaps that is why parents treasure the simple and often crudely made Christmas gifts from their little children still struggling to print in a straight line. It’s the open-hearted love that makes things truly precious. That is, after all, the point of Christmas … God’s generous love and ours.
The biblical story of the Magi as told by Matthew (2:1-12), however, has a significantly diverse twist and a powerful truth to teach us. Even though their gifts were admittedly precious, a different point is being made by the tale. We just heard that Gospel passage on the Feast of the Epiphany last Sunday.
In Matthew’s mind, it was not the extravagant value of the gifts that would have caught the attention of the original audience, but the simple fact that the Magi themselves showed up and were welcome!
Magi were star worshipping members of the Zoroastrian religion, emanating from the remote regions of Persia, and, more to the point, somehow erstwhile descendants of the hated ancient Assyrians and Babylonians (who had once destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem).
As pagans, they might be tolerated by faithful Jewish people, but as modern representatives of those sometimes cruel and oppressive enemies, they were not really welcome guests.
This group persisted in their travels, however, in order to finally arrive at Bethlehem, humbly offering precious gifts and seeking answers to their persistent and mysterious questions.
When they arrived, in spite of their dubious religious heritage and social unacceptability, they were welcomed and their visit celebrated for all ages to come.
Today we allow them in our artistic representations to retain their exotic colorful clothing, and to stand in total contrast to the lives of those around them. The Magi are religiously and culturally different indeed. They were once unacceptable to pious folks.
If the Magi are welcome in our crèche scenes, however, anyone is welcome, even all the individuals and contemporary groups we find alien, suspicious and fundamentally unacceptable.
The story of the Epiphany, therefore, once a pressing argument for the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God, has become an argument for welcoming the most unacceptable people we can imagine to stand at our side before the crèche of God’s love in utter mutual wonderment.
We all have people in the family, neighborhood or workplace whom, for whatever reason, we find hard to love … or even respect. Our deeply polarized nation is either brightly red or starkly blue, united in what often seems nothing but mutual distrust and even contempt. Many Americans are preoccupied with building fences and walls to keep out unwelcome though often desperately poor immigrants.
The story of the Magi, often perceived as sentimentally charming, is in fact an unsettling tale. Each retelling should demand further soul searching and eventually deep conversion on our part.
It turns out that the real gift of the Magi was not the treasures they brought, but the truth they embodied, namely that God welcomes very improbable people … perhaps even ourselves.
Welcome the figures of those Magi in your living room display, and don’t take down the crèche too quickly this year. They have much to teach us Americans.