Why we need the wisest gifts this Christmas

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.

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
figures in a nativity scene with a bright start in the sky
The Nativity of Christ

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 manger

Luke 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 77 million people worldwide will have become infected with this novel virus which will have killed 1.7 million of them.

In the United States 18 million are confirmed infected, and 317,000 have lost their lives to COVID-19. (updated December 20, 2020-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.)

Christmas 2020

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 receive
gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones.
They are the magi.

O. Henry

The Gift of 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.

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love
graphic by Althea Solomons at LIGHTSTOCK.COM, affiliate link
Bonus info-do you know there is a Three Kings’ Day?

Epiphany is celebrated …. in Spain as Three Kings’ Day, with more gusto and bang than Christmas Day. There’s a big parade on January 5, culminating with the Three Magi taking thrones in the town’s central park, letting kids sit on their laps to ask them to bring them something on Three Kings’ Day.

Then that night, legend has it, that the Three Kings sneak into all the homes and leave gifts for the kids—not unlike Santa Claus.

“Who Were the Magi?”

Read or listen to more of this story by Bible teacher Nancy Demoss Wolgemuth at her website Revive Our Hearts.

The Heart of Christmas

My family and I send Christmas wishes for peace, love, joy, and the HEART of health to you and all those you love.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,

“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

(Luke 2:11–14)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Christmas nativity scene
photo of a Nativity set at my church-Dr. Aletha 

If you are grieving the loss of someone you love, please know that I care. My husband lost his brother a few weeks ago, so we also are missing someone, plus all the others we have lost through the years. We feel their absence most at the holidays.

I pray you’ll find comfort in sharing love with those still here, whether in person or at a distance. My family and I send Christmas wishes for peace, love, joy, and the HEART of health to you and all those you love.

in faith, hope, and love always Dr. Aletha

Peace on earth will come to stay, when we live Christmas every day.
graphic from LIGHTSTOCK.COM