The Nativity of Jesus Christ
Whether you go to a Christian church or not, you likely know the Christmas story from the Bible as it is depicted in the Nativity. Nativity is a fancy way to say “birth,” but is especially used to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ.
You’ve seen countless Nativity scenes, with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger with adoring shepherds and wise men standing or kneeling near by. A donkey, cow, and sheep may complete the scene.
Except that’s not exactly how the Bible tells it. The four Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John- relate the life of Jesus, but only Matthew and Luke tell the story of his birth and their versions differ. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit.
Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went from.. Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.
He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.
While they were there… Mary …gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.Luke 2 , CEB
When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the mangerLuke 2, CEB
Matthew misses the Bethlehem journey and the shepherds, but from him we meet the wise men- the Magi.
When they (Magi) heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.
They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.Matthew 2, CEB
Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible
“Three Wise Men”
Most Bible versions call them wise men, a translation of a Greek word Magi, used in the New International Version. The Message Bible calls them “a band of scholars” which might be the most accurate as none of the versions indicate there were only three.
Nor did they visit the barn. Matthew indicates they came to the house, to visit the child. So perhaps this was as much as two years later.
But however many there were and whenever they arrived, they brought three gifts-gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones.O. Henry
I assume William, the real name of O. Henry, must have known this Bible story. Why else would a druggist, ranch hand, magazine editor, and convicted felon write a story about Magi? Or rather, about their gifts.
Three Wise Gifts
In a previous post I told you about William Sydney Porter, who wrote short stories under the pen name of O.Henry. He wrote and published over 600 stories, the most famous of which was published in 1905.
As a druggist (although of uncertain credentials) I suspect he knew of the medicinal properties attributed to gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We think of gold’s value in terms of money, but 2000 years ago, people probably valued healing substances more than money.
Doctors once treated rheumatoid arthritis with medicines developed from gold, now mostly replaced with more effective and less toxic drugs. Traditional Chinese medicine uses frankincense and myrrh for their reported anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.
As I write this, scientists are working around the clock studying medicines and vaccines to slow, cure, and prevent the ravages of SARS-CoV-2, a pathogen the world has never encountered before and the likes of one we never want to deal with again.
By the time you read this over 62 million people worldwide will have become infected with this novel virus which will have killed 1.5 million of them. In the United States 13 million are confirmed infected, and 266,000 have lost their lives to COVID-19. (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center statistics)
Christian scholars also attribute spiritual significance to the gifts. Among the many references I reviewed, this one sums up the general consensus.
gold can be taken to symbolise royalty and kingship; frankincense divinity and holiness; and myrrh suffering and death.
Although we don’t know if O.Henry considered the gifts in spiritual terms, he painted an unexpected and ironic picture of what “wise gifts” are in his now classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” (No spoiler alert, I’m not revealing the story plot.)
The world needs comfort and healing this year.
People have suffered through several pandemics since the time of Christ’s birth. Imagine how frightening the plagues were at a time when science couldn’t explain the source of disease, much less know how to prevent it. Even as recently as the influenza pandemic of 1918, doctors still didn’t fully understand the means of spread or how to stop it and medicines to treat it and it’s complications didn’t exist.
“In the case of COVID-19, prolonged disruption, grief, and stress add markedly to the burden of disease.”Harvey V Fineberg, MD,PhD- JAMA
In a year we will remember for so much
- uncertainty, friction,unrest,anger,blaming, loss, pain, sickness and death
perhaps the gifts we most need to give one another are
- understanding, patience, listening, caring, generosity, forgiveness, friendship, and love.
But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days:
Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receiveO. Henry
gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones.
They are the magi.
It’s worth reading, re-reading, watching, or listening to Williams’s story. Do it before you start Christmas shopping; you may change some of your choices once you learn what “wise gifts” are.
Follow the link above to a PDF version which you can print, or any of the other links below (some of which are affiliate links) to read O.Henry’s timeless story. Spoiler alert- the descriptions may reveal the story line, but you probably already know it. You might want to start with the PDF version above.
read the story
watch the movie
look at a picture book
read other stories by O. Henry
listen to the story as told by Kristin Chenoweth
exploring the HEART of Christmas giving
Thanks for joining me to reflect on this timeless story. Whether it was your first time to hear it, or one of many, I hope it tugged at something in your heart.
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