Kathy and Dave had a 10-year-old son Sam. They lived in an apartment in New York City. The snow was falling lightly, filling the night sky with light. It was Christmas time and the snow reflected off the lights ornamenting the neighborhood. Times were hard for the family for it was 1933 and the country was in the midst of the depression. The parents realized that they would not be able to buy any presents this year for Christmas, but they thought themselves fortunate enough to provide food for their meals.
Two weeks before Christmas they explained to Sam that there would be no gift-giving this Christmas (or so they thought). Instead they decided that they would each draw some pictures of the presents they would give if they had the money to buy them. These pictures would become the ornaments of their small Charlie Brown-like Christmas tree.
On Christmas Eve after Sam went to bed, Kathy and Dave brought out their pictures. Dave gave Kathy a drawing of a diamond bracelet, another of a fur coat. Kathy presented Dave with a picture of a brand new Cadillac and a gold watch. They both had drawn sketches of toys and games that they placed on the tree for Sam.
Morning came and Sam anxiously woke up his parents to come downstairs to the tree. He looked at all the home-made ornaments and was thrilled. Then he said to his parents: “It’s my turn to give you your present.” He ran to his room and got the picture he had drawn. It was folded over and taped so they had to open it. He gave it to Kathy first. She opened it and began to cry as she handed it off to Dave. Dave looked at it and a big smile came over his face. He was filled with joy.
You see the thing is that Kathy and Dave had told Sam the drawings would represent the best things they could give each other. Sam, taking that instruction seriously as a 10-year-old, drew a sketch of his family arm in arm with big smiles on their faces. They were filled with joy. For Kathy and Dave, the gift of their child helped them refocus on what they already had – love.
In many parts of the Catholic world, presents are exchanged in celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord. This is our liturgical celebration for this Sunday. The gift-giving reflects the arrival of the magi at the manger in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus and his parents were staying. As we celebrate the Epiphany we recognize the great gift that we have received in Jesus.
The story of the magi is filled with layers of meaning. The magi represent the Gentiles, the foreigners (non-Jews) who recognize the great event that is the nativity. They come from afar, from the East, bearing gifts to present to the new-born King of the Jews. When they arrive at the stable they present gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In one sense the gifts are a symbolic token because the magi recognize that the gift the world has received in Jesus is far more important than any material object they could give. So they bow down in homage to the new-born, an act of thanksgiving and praise. The day of salvation has arrived, not only for the Jews but for Gentiles as well, and the world rejoices in this great gift.
The gold, frankincense and myrrh also have symbolic value in themselves. While there are various interpretations to the significance of each item, they all represent something of the new-born Savior. Generally all three gifts can be associated with royalty. They are presents worthy of a king.
The gold represents the kingship of Jesus on earth. It is something valuable and offered to the king in homage. The frankincense is perfumed incense having a symbolic value of heavenly kingship, something that is offered to God. The myrrh is an oil used for anointing. The anointing usually associated with this is the anointing of the body in preparation for burial. Each gift then represents something of the significance of the birth of the messiah.
Taken as a whole the Epiphany account celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the nations. The salvific value is seen not only in the birth of Jesus but in the foreshadowing of his death. From the beginning of the account Jesus’ life is threatened. He is in danger. The confrontation with evil that will result in his victory over sin and death begins now.
Herod, hearing from the magi that a new king has been born, is deeply disturbed and he seeks to destroy the child. His duplicity is seen in the interaction with the magi as he asks them to report back to him when they find the new-born king so he can “do him homage.” Herod becomes the representation of evil opposing the goodness of God who in humble love takes on flesh to redeem mankind. The ferociousness of Herod and his evil intentions will be seen shortly in the slaying of the innocents.
The magi follow a star, a light in the sky, to the true light — the light who is Jesus, born of Mary. The Isaian prophecy is fulfilled in a spectacular way: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” The “nations” represented by the magi are now introduced to God and will soon know of his mercy and love which has taken flesh in Jesus.
Today as we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord we are called to refocus ourselves on the gift we received at Christmas – the gift of God’s only begotten Son, the Word made flesh, our Savior and Redeemer. Through him we know God’s love, we experience his mercy and we rejoice in his gift.
As we continue our observance of Christmas and as we prepare for the World Meeting of Families we are also reminded of the great gift of God’s presence in our families, the domestic church. The love celebrated in our families is not centered on what we have but who we are together in Christ Jesus. The relationships we share with each other in family provide a great opportunity for the love of God to become manifest anew. Jesus fills these relationships with his love in the Body of Christ.
Allowing him into the home of our family will animate that family with love. Joy will fill our homes and the light, which is Christ, will shine forth for all the nations — and that is the greatest of all gifts.