There is a very sentimental short story about the Christmas season titled “The Gift of the Magi,” written by an author who used the pen name O. Henry. The two main characters in the story, a husband and wife, were very poor and faced the difficulty of being unable to buy Christmas gifts for one another. Independently of one another, the couple devised clever strategies for purchasing gifts, but their strategies backfired. In the end, they realized that their mutual love was a gift of immeasurable value.
Christmas is filled with such sentimental musings. Today’s feast of the Epiphany is an example of such. Countless tales have been composed about the foreign visitors referred to as “magi” in today’s Gospel. Over the centuries, commentators have proposed that there were as few as two “magi” and as many as twelve; the Gospel does not specify the number of “magi,” only the number of gifts presented to the infant Jesus. At one point in the middle ages, three names were chosen for the bearers of the three gifts mentioned. The modern assumption that there were three wise men named Casper, Balthasar, and Melchior is based on neither textual nor historical evidence.
The word “magi” itself is a misnomer. Alternately called “wise men” or kings, these visitors from the “east” were putatively Zoroasterian clerics from the royal court of the Persian Empire. Rather than sorcerers (the meaning of the word “magi”), wisdom seekers, or royalty, they were from a learned caste of court advisers to the Persian Emperor (at the time, the Persian Empire was the only political and military rival to the Roman Empire).
The relatively exotic nature of these oriental foreigners lends itself to the sort of sentimental fiction associated with this Gospel passage. There is, however, a definite liability involved in sentimentality. The noticeable weakness of sentimentality is its lack of permanence.
By the weekend immediately after Christmas day, the neighborhoods surrounding the parish campus were littered with discarded Christmas trees, boxes, tinsel, and other holiday trappings. As much as American consumer culture worships the feast of Christmas, most of us seem eager to abandon the celebration as quickly as the calendar will allow. Having consumed greedily all that the Christmas season has to offer, our society is quick to shift its devotion to the next religious holiday on the calendar, SuperBowl LIII.
Sentimentality can be very compelling, but it is always short-lived. I’d like to propose a completely unsentimental perspective on today’s feast.
It is generally accepted that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a congregation composed of a mixture of Jews and gentiles. There are numerous references in the Gospel to the predictable sorts of tensions that would arise in a community composed to two, distinct populations. Today’s reading is an example of how the author of the Gospel encouraged the two populations to see themselves as a single, new People of God.
At the time the Gospel was written, the common Jewish expectation was that God would send Israel a savior who was a descendant of King David. The “magi” validate the early Church’s messianic claims about Jesus by bringing him the sort of gifts one would give to a King; the Jewish members of Matthew’s congregation would have seen the “magi” as fulfillment of their own hopes for a successor to King David.
On the other hand, the “magi” were not only gentiles but foreigners from outside the Roman Empire; the gentile members of Matthew’s congregation would have seen the “magi” as proof that gentiles could have true faith in the Jewish Messiah and as consolation about the fact that putting one’s faith in Jesus made one an outsider in one’s own culture.
The “magi” served as an affirmation of the faith of both groups and a reminder of the need for unity between the two groups. Jesus’ Davidic descent made him legitimately the Messiah and his recognition by gentile scholars made faith in him possible for non-Jews. The “magi” represented all of the members of the Matthew’s church congregation. This ought to raise in our minds the obvious question about how (or whether), we see ourselves represented by these three foreign visitors to Bethlehem.
There is an old joke about the construction of Catholic church buildings. The joke says that if a wise man was to design a Catholic church building, he would make the front rows of pews from cardboard and install revolving doors at the main entrance; these design elements would reduce the cost of actual pews in a location where Catholics never sit and alleviate the possibility of the late-comers colliding with the ones who leave Mass early. The sad truth behind the joke is that many Catholics see their local church community as being a minor inconvenience: spending the minimum possible amount of time seated in church is the only solution to the inconvenience of not having a drive-through window for Holy Communion.
If you find the story of the “magi” to be engaging or moving, the Gospel author intended it to be so, but for an ulterior motive. The “magi” serve as a reminder that we can either see ourselves as equal, necessary members of one church community or as independent, unrelated individuals. Being a member of the Church means seeing every other Church member as necessary to our relationship with God; in the absence of this understanding, we are members of nothing at all.
The short story “The Gift of the Magi” has a very counter-cultural subtext. The married couple’s independent attempts to surprise one another with valuable Christmas gifts failed; their attempts failed precisely and solely because each one chose a course of action independently of the other. Beyond being a sentimental tale about the Christmas season, the story is a lesson about marriage: independent action in marriage does not lead to a stronger marriage bond.
The same lesson applies to the distinct social context of church congregations. Being a member of the Church means seeing every other Church member as necessary to one’s relationship with God; in the absence of this understanding, one is a member of nothing at all. Are the people sitting next to you mere foils against which you have your consumer desires sated or are they fellow worshipers? The Gospel’s response to this question is definitive; the only possibility we have for encountering the Savior and coming to know God, as the “magi” did, is as a united community.