Today’s reflection is from Christopher and Ruth, worship leaders who took the service today.
Middle Eastern hospitality required that journeys and visits were marked by the giving or exchange of gifts. Monarchs, statesmen and religious leaders still bring and receive gifts when they meet other leaders in other countries. If you are invited to a party or to a friend’s house it is usual to bring a gift and perhaps to take one away. But if we are to accompany the Magi on their journey towards Jesus, we have to stop and wonder: what does gift giving really involve?
Gifts are words and emotions in concrete form. They embody the idea that you have thought about the other person and your friendship, love, esteem or gratitude for them is reflected in the form of gift you offer. You might take something you have cooked round to a new neighbour, to show you recognise that they might need something while they get their kitchen up and running; you might take flowers and wine to a dinner party to thank the hosts for the effort they have taken to feed you; you might take magazines or soap or fruit to a sick person to show care for them and to embody the hope that they will get well.You may want to give food or money to the foodbank because you care for those who do not have enough.
I’ve been wondering how the Magi decided what to bring to Jesus, and also when they did their deciding. You can take the view that they turned up at Bethlehem within a week or two of the birth, if not on the day, though if so they must have started long before. I personally like the idea that the star first appeared at the time of Jesus’ conception. Or you can take the view that the star appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, in which case they would not have made it for Epiphany only a fortnight later. Either way, did they decide independently what they would give and when to leave and then happened to meet up in Jerusalem?
I prefer the idea that they all came from the same area and had for some time been in the habit of meeting to watch the stars, to pray and to share any insights they may have received. Clearly they were prophetic, and it may not have been the first time they had pictures or dreams. Zechariah kept having visions where an angel said to him “what do you see?”. It is common still that if someone asks for prayer the one praying can have a picture of something which seems strange but actually means a lot to the seeker.
You can imagine the scene in Caspar’s housegroup;
(C) “Hey Melchior, did you see that new star which rose last night for the first time?”
(M) “Yes I did, and I’m sure it must have a meaning of some sort. Balthasar, you are good on old prophecies, can you think of anything?”
(B) “Yes I did read somewhere that a new star would herald the birth of a king”
(C) “ Well I first saw it over towards the West, pretty well over Judea.”
(M) Lets all pray about it and see if we have any insights to share next week”
(C) “I’ve been praying about that star. I had a dream about a great king full of power and gleaming like gold”
(M)” I too had a dream. I saw a man on his knees praying, and it seemed that his prayer released a sweet smell all over the world.”
(B) “I’m not quite sure, but I think this is from God. I saw a dead man, very badly injured, but surrounded by people whom he had loved and who loved him. Then I saw the same man come alive, and his love spread around the world.”
(C) “ The fact that we’ve all seen something shows this is really significant. I suggest we start out to travel and see what it is. We should take gifts, maybe each of us the gift appropriate to his vision for the destiny of this great and holy personage.”
So of course we know the rest of the story. Gold to signify kingship, incense to signify prayer and priesthood. Despite the hymn, I believe that myrrh has greater implications than just burial: it also has aspects of love. Esther was anointed with it for 6 months before being presented to King Xerxes. The Song of Solomon fairly drips with it.
So can we learn from the Magi the right principles for choosing Christmas presents? Perhaps not always just what the recipient put on their list? Perhaps, after praying for them, something to reflect God’s love for them and purpose for their life. Of course, it is not only or most importantly material gifts; any conversation, even online, can and should be an exchange of gifts. Spend less, love more!