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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. Matthew misses the Bethlehem journey and the shepherds, but from him we meet the wise men- the Magi.
Whether you go to a Christian church or not, you likely are familiar with the Christmas story in 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.
A young couple named Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for the Roman census.
Mary, pregnant, unexpectedly delivered a baby boy there-in a barn, the only available accommodation on short notice
Local shepherds, directed by angels, came to visit the baby.
And “three wise men”, following a star, came to visit bearing expensive gifts.
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 and their versions are different. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit. Matthew misses the shepherds, but from him we learn about the 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.
The Gifts of the Magi (no spoiler alert needed)
In a previous post I told you about William Sydney Porter, the author of this story. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell the story here, I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve never read it.
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?
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.
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 probably over 50 million people worldwide will have become infected with this novel virus which will have killed 1.5 million of them.
The world needs 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, the means of spread was not well understood and medicines to treat it and it’s complications didn’t exist.
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 have no record to indicate O.Henry thought of the gifts in spiritual terms, he conveyed an unexpected and ironic picture of what “wise gifts” are.
Perhaps the wisest gifts we can give this year of so much, loss, friction, unrest, blaming, loss,pain, sickness and death are understanding, patience, listening, caring, generosity, forgiveness, friendship, and love.
It’s worth reading, or re-reading the story; watching or listening to it. Do it before you start Christmas shopping; you may change some of your choices. And we should all thank William, aka O.Henry, for leaving us the gift of