In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
January 6 officially ends the season of Christmas. During this season, the church celebrates the incarnation of Immanuel, God with Us. Most of the Western world, however, (and if we’re being honest, most of us in the Western church as well) celebrate an excess of giving and receiving. Although there is no biblical basis to link Santa Claus, Secret Santas, or White Elephant Exchanges to the season of Christmas, gifts do show up in this first festival after Christmas—Epiphany.
Epiphany is the festival of the revelation of Jesus and the texts throughout this season will help us to understand Jesus’ identity as God Incarnate. It begins with the revelation of the great star that the magi followed—the first outside of Jesus’ own family to understand the importance of his birth.
First, though, a couple of facts. Despite what you may have seen in many children’s pageants, Christmas movies, or read in your favorite retelling of the Christmas story, the magi did not arrive at a stable. In fact, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth there is no stable at all. Jesus is simply born in Bethlehem, very likely in either the home of Joseph’s or one of Mary’s relatives (Matthew 1:24–1:25).
In any case, even if Jesus were born in a stable, the magi visit sometime after his birth. According to Matthew, the magi arrive in Jerusalem, the largest neighboring town to Bethlehem, “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” (Matthew 2:1). When the magi finally arrive at Joseph’s house, they find “the child and Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11). Although Matthew uses a number of terms to refer to Jesus here, he never uses the Greek word for infant and, when the magi finally meet Jesus, he uses the term most often ascribed to young children. This is verified by Herod’s declaration to kill “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16), with two years earlier likely being the time when the magi identified the star’s first appearance.
Finally, the magi have been assigned many roles as kings, sorcerers, astronomers, or wise men from the East. What we can know is that they came from affluence (based on their gifts) and that they knew how to track a star. It is worth noting, however, that the Bible neither names their gender nor states how many magi there were. The tradition that there were three magi comes largely from Matthew’s enumeration of three gifts.
So back to those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). There’s a popular meme that suggests if there had been “Three Wise Women” instead of “Three Wise Men,” “They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts [some versions suggest diapers], cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on earth.” Which, quite apart from the problems with gender and number noted above, has gotten me thinking this Christmas season about the gifts we give.
Do we give practical gifts? Do we prefer practical gifts? I still remember that Christmas as a child when my mother opened up a brightly wrapped package to find a box for a new iron. She nearly threw it away before my father opened the box to reveal that within it he had wrapped a diamond ring. In this season of giving, we tend to focus on the extravagant, or at least frivolous, rather than the practical. It is an opportunity to indulge—to give to another something they may not be so likely to buy for themselves—and, at its best, to let our loved ones feel seen and understood through the thoughtfulness with which we honor them this season.
All of this is true—with one exception. Have you ever stood in front of a charity angel tree and heard the person next to you murmur about why a “child in need” is asking for an Xbox or an iPad? Maybe you’ve been the one murmuring yourself. It seems extravagant that someone who cannot buy their own Christmas present is asking for a $300 gift. And maybe it is . . . but then again, isn’t Christmas a time to be extravagant?
I have witnessed people murmur about such “inappropriate entitlement” while holding a bag from GameStop containing the same video gaming system, likely for their own child or grandchild. The problem, it would seem, is not with children asking for such expensive things, but with “needy” children asking for them. This is the debate about whether or not it is appropriate to buy a lobster or a steak with food stamps wrapped up in Christmas trappings.
In the nativity stories (especially Luke’s story, which gets the most press), Mary and Joseph are portrayed as “in need.” They don’t even have a proper place for Mary to give birth. So it’s no wonder that our Western culture of entitlement has come to assume that Mary would have preferred “practical gifts.” In so doing the Holy Family becomes a charity case, one for whom we as the contemporary church get to decide what gifts are appropriate, where they may stay, how they might prefer to celebrate their child’s birth. This is the struggle with people who find themselves in need, not just at Christmas time, but throughout the year—those people who seek to help them often seek to take away their agency, their ability to decide how and what help they need to begin with.
Matthew offers a counter narrative. The magi arrive at the home where Jesus and Mary are, and they do not question whether Jesus “needs” their gifts. They do not comment on how humble or how exceptional his dwelling is (in fact, Matthew never mentions it!). They do not ask to see his birth certificate or his green card. They simply kneel before Jesus and offer him their gifts of indulgence: “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” These gifts show that the magi “get” Jesus. They understand who he is and who he will grow to be; they honor him.
With the festival of Epiphany, we move from a season of indulgence and gift giving that has been loosely connected with the incarnation of God, to a celebration marked by honoring, not ourselves, but our God. Through the season of Epiphany and the rest of the year, what gifts do we give? How and why do we give them? And through them, do we honor the self-respect and agency of God and all of God’s children? Through our gifts, do we (can we?) testify to who God is as the one who became incarnate among us?
 Origen, Contra Celsum 1.60.