O. Henry’s famous story, The Gift of the Magi, concerns Della and Jim, a young couple who fall on hard times and cannot afford to buy each other Christmas presents. Eventually Della sells her beautiful long hair to buy Jim a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoiseshell combs for her vanished hair!
When she opens the combs, Della’s grand sacrifice seems pointless. When she gives him the watch chain, likewise Jim’s sacrifice seems pointless. The story ends with O. Henry talking about the magi, who invented the act of giving Christmas presents and gave sacrificially to Jesus, but gave what could be regarded as pointless gifts for a baby. A blanket or a cot might have been better than gold, frankincense, or myrrh. Henry suggests that Della and Jim, who foolishly sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures they possessed, are actually the wisest of all, for, like the magi, they gave their love.
It is interesting that in Matthew’s Gospel the first human beings to speak are the magi, who were probably Gentiles, practising a different religion. Because of their interest in astrology and the stars, the magi are thought to have been Zoroastrians, yet astral cults are condemned in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, God calls the magi to seek for the new king through the medium of following a star. The Jewish priests must have seen the same star but failed to recognise God’s promptings.
The magi did not come to Jesus through liturgy, sacrament or a social outreach programme, they came through science, by studying the night skies for many years. We do not know whether they then converted to Judaism or whether they continued to follow their own religion, but we do know that, according to Matthew, these foreigners were the first to recognise the infant Christ.
The magi may have been kings, linking them with Isaiah 60:3-6, and there may have been three of them as three gifts are mentioned, but there may have been many more. The gifts are thought to represent three different aspects of Jesus: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh to indicate suffering and death. All three were expensive gifts, but there is no further mention of them in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps they were used to finance the flight to Egypt. We do not know.
The magi visited King Herod first to ask for news of the birth. Since the same Greek word for “king” is used to describe both Herod and Jesus, perhaps it is not surprising that Herod was terrified at this perceived threat to his power and status. But Matthew goes further, implicating “all Jerusalem” in Herod’s fear that the birth of the Messiah is imminent. The religious authorities tell Herod that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, so Herod sends the magi on their way after discovering from them the exact time the star was first spotted, so that he can work out the probable date of the birth. Later, he uses this knowledge to exterminate all the baby boys.
When the magi find the baby – in a house rather than a stable, according to Matthew – they are filled with joy. After they offer their gifts God speaks to them again, this time in a dream, warning them to avoid Herod. They return to their own country by another route, and we never hear of them again.
God called scientists from another religion to travel thousands of miles over a long period of time just to see a baby. Many would have considered them to be the wrong people to receive God’s call and that journey to be without purpose, yet it gave a very important message to humanity. Those scientists proclaimed the Christ, showing that Jesus is the Messiah not just for the Jews but for the whole world, and welcomes those of any religion or none.
As long as we are sufficiently open to recognise God’s promptings, any of us may be called by God to give sacrificially of our time, talents, wealth and love, just as the magi gave. Like the magi, we may not be able to see the ultimate purpose of our calling, but if we step out on our particular journey in faith, we will find that all is held firmly in God’s hands.