During the week before Christmas I overheard a conversation between two women who were complaining about the upcoming holiday. The first woman was upset because she was going to her parent’s home for Christmas dinner and they didn’t seem to appreciate the effort it involved for her to get her children, up, out, and even-tempered during a two-hour car trip on Christmas morning. The second woman said, “At least you’ve finished shopping. I still have to figure out what to get for everyone – and no one’s going to appreciate it anyway. I can’t wait until Christmas is over and it’s New Year’s. That’s the real holiday.”
I felt bad for them – because no matter what you think about the secularization of Christmas, most of us believe that “the holiday season” should be a time of generosity and good cheer. But we know that for many people it’s not. Not for people who can’t give or receive presents because they don’t have families, funds, or homes. Not for people who are isolated or incarcerated. Not for people like these who dread family visits and worry about buying all the gifts they think they are expected to give.
So you would hope that Christians – whose belief system spawned this celebration – would be the ones trying to make Christmas easier. But whose fault is all this pre-Christmas traumatic stress disorder? Blame it on the Wise Men – because it was Matthew’s gospel that established a relationship between gift-giving and the remembrance of Jesus’s birth. And not just any gifts – but rare and lavish ones. As Rob Long sardonically suggests, “The True Meaning [of Matthew’s nativity story]…is [that] gifts are important. On a night when, typical of their millennial generation, Mary and Joseph simply hadn’t planned ahead, they received the gift of shelter… And then later, they got some very expensive gifts from three perfect strangers! What does this tell us?” “It tells us,” Long says, “that the benchmark minimum number of acceptable presents a person should receive at Christmas is four, and one of them should probably be gold.”
No wonder people are stressed out about gift-giving. And the sad thing is that there’s no good reason for it. Because it turns out that the whole “We three kings of Orient are” thing is wrong. First of all, although it is not clear who these allegedly-wealthy visitors to Bethlehem were, we know that they were not kings. That notion came from the words of Isaiah’s prophecy – “kings shall come to the brightness” of the Lord – not from the actual gospel story. And the gospel writer never says that there were three of whatever they were. We get that idea from the mention of three specific gifts. Finally, “orient” is a very vague and probably inaccurate description of where they came from. So, in essence, “We three kings of Orient are” – aren’t.
But these visitors are important. According to one ancient text, these far-eastern mystics – Magi – believed in a prophecy of “a star of indescribable brightness” that would herald “the birth of God in human form.” Mathew’s gospel suggests that these Gentile foreigners thought that Jesus’s birth was the fulfillment of their ancient prophecy. This is the true revelation of this nativity story – the true epiphany – that Jesus is the manifestation of God on earth. For the Magi, Jesus is not only heralded by the star; Jesus is the star. The epiphany we celebrate today is the understanding that God has come to earth and revealed a light so powerful that it can and will dispel the darkness in the world. This is God’s gift to humankind.
The question is whether that gift is meant for all people – for those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t. The inclusion of the Magi in Matthew’s gospel is meant to suggest that it is – that Jesus is not only the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, but of all religious hope. This is made explicit in the apocryphal text, “The Revelation of the Magi” in which the Star Child says, “I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shown in this world from the majesty of the Father, who has sent me to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world.” On first glance this seems to support the Christian idea that Jesus is the true source and center of all belief systems – and that bringing people to Christ is a gift – whether the recipient wants it or not.
Unfortunately, this understanding of the revelation of Jesus as God-made-manifest has led to tremendous violence and discord in the world. And it’s easy to understand why. After all, how many of us have received gifts that we not only didn’t want, but which offended us? How many of us have felt hurt and rejected when the gifts we gave to others went unappreciated? How many of us have, like the women I overheard talking to each other, felt more despair than joy when contemplating what it means to give gifts in remembrance of the offerings of the Magi? And, more importantly, how many people have been forced to accept the “gift” of Christianity because of the belief that Jesus is the one and only manifestation of God’s love for us?
This is the kind of thing that happens when we start to believe that the light of God can only come in one form- and is only given to one people. It’s what happened when a professor at a conservative Christian college decided to show her support for Muslim people by wearing a hijab. Her reasoning was simple, “We all have the same God.” For this she was suspended and is in jeopardy of being fired -because college officials say the belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is contrary to their faith. This is what happens when we decide that God’s love belongs only to us and only we determine how it can be given.
Gift-giving is not about material value, it’s about emotional value. It’s about the spirit with which the gift is given and the spirit in which it is received. My most valued gifts are precious to me because they were offered in an attitude of thoughtfulness and affection – and because they represent the positive relationship I have with the giver. “To think of a gift, you must…think of a giver… [and] feel a bond to the giver of the gift.” And the giver of the gift of light is God. That’s why we can only offer the gift of the reflected light of God – the light that we as Christians perceive of as Jesus – if we give it with the knowledge that doing so puts us in relationship with the recipient of our gift – and that such a relationship cannot be forced. It cannot be developed with an attitude of superiority – or haste- or duty. It can only happen if we are willing to love the recipient – and if we desire to receive what they have to offer us.
St. Paul tells us that the mystery of the revelation of Jesus is that we are all fellow heirs of the light of God – that we are all members of the same body. We may believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence to us through the gospel, but why shouldn’t we accept that others can also receive the promise of God-made-manifest? “The Revelation of the Magi” suggests that just because Christian gospel tells us that Jesus is the Magi’s star-child, it doesn’t mean that its qualities cannot be found in other figures. It may be that “the star-child [expresses] itself in whatever a given culture values and comprehends.”
The true Epiphany is not only that God loves us enough to show himself to us in a form we can see and understand, but that God does this for all people. God’s light is bright enough to dispel all of the darkness in the world – to bring to humanity the gifts we both want and need – the gifts of justice, equality, and an abundance of peace. But in order to receive them we have to commit to being in relationship – not only with the light-giver but to all people who receive that light – however they receive it. We cannot simply reflect our light unto others; we must bind ourselves to them in order to magnify and extend God’s light. Then we will see and be radiant. Then we will thrill and rejoice. Then we and all our sisters and brothers – just like the Magi before us –will flourish and be overwhelmed with joy. AMEN.
 Rob Long (December 18, 2015), “In Defense of Scrooge,” The Wall Street Journal online, http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-defense-of-scrooge-1450455523.
Miroslav Volf (January 6, 2016), “The giver and the gift,” Christian Century, 10-11.
Brent Landau (December 10, 2010), “Who were the three wise men of Christmas?” Huffington Post online, http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/788238.