The Gifts of the Magi

A Reflection on the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany by incoming Executive Director of Franciscan Action Network, Stephen Schneck


Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew 2:12

The Magi followed the star looking for a king, “the newborn king of the Jews.” Yet, what are we to understand the baby’s kingship to mean? Were the Magi’s gifts meant to symbolize earthly authority – with gold for wealth, incense for beauty, and myrrh for anointed power?

Surely not… All faiths reject mundane ideals like wealth, glamour, and power. Christians, in particular, are called to look to the poor, the ugly and leprous, the marginalized, oppressed, meek, and those without power for the face of God to inspire their lives in the world and to find hope for the world to come. The Gospel of Matthew speaks pointedly to this, reporting that with the departure of the Magi, the tiny newborn, Mary, and Joseph found themselves fleeing desperately as migrants to Egypt, refugees from the power of a violent king in Judea.

The question of the gifts of the Magi returns several times in the Gospels, often as parables to reflect on wealth, fame, and power. Poignantly, for example, at the beginning of His public ministry, after forty days of fasting in the desert, perversions of the Magi’s gifts are held out as three temptations to Christ – the last of which is utter power over all the kingdoms of this world.

That last temptation, the temptation of power, is surely the most poignant for those of us who feel called to serve in public life. Imagine how Christ – acutely feeling the vulnerability of his human life after fasting to the brink of death in the desert – was sorely tested with the offer of utter power to enforce goodness on the kingdoms of the world. Yet, he chooses powerlessness, not power. He chooses humbly to serve, not rule.

So it is, then, that I believe we must understand the gifts of the Magi, in light of Christ’s choice humbly to serve the poor, the ugly and marginalized, and the powerless. Gold for those in poverty, frankincense for those marginalized or forgotten, and myrrh to anoint the meek and powerless.

An ancient story about the Magi has it that the gifts of the Magi were stolen by two thieves, but the thieves were vexed in conscience about them throughout their troubled lives, only to return the gifts on the steps to Golgotha. Christ, on the day of His crucifixion, standing in judgment before the then global power of Rome, answered Pilate’s interrogation about power and kingship saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And, mocking what seemed to them to be the powerlessness of any king not of this world, but echoing the description of whom the Magi sought, the Romans inscribed Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum upon His cross.

Published in: on January 4, 2020 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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