Presents, gifts and Christmas

Arrival of the Kings

The Magi have just arrived (with their presents) to see the baby. Matthew’s account of their arrival is careful and circumstantial. It’s a little while on from the actual birth (although we think of the kings as queueing up behind the shepherds,  as that’s what happens in Nativity plays and at our cribs, it’s not exactly what the narrative suggests).

Here they are, queuing patiently, presents at the ready
First in Jerusalem…

The wise men arrive in Jerusalem, seeking information, after Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. All that the wise men know is that there is an infant king, born for the nation whose capital is in Jerusalem, so they go and ask if anyone knows any more about it than they do. They have seen a new and significant star which indicates the baby king’s arrival, but the implication is that the star is taking a pause, because otherwise they would have continued to follow it. Maybe it’s too cloudy; or maybe they are travelling through Jerusalem anyway, replenishing their supplies or something (we know they have come quite some distance), and a big town is a good place to ask for news.

…and on to Bethlehem

Herod’s informants get wind of this and report it to him. He is worried (his position is difficult anyway, because of the Romans), so very sensibly he tries to find out more. (He is the first person officially to worry about this baby being the Messiah.)  First he checks up on the prophecies. then he summons the Magi ‘privately’, to avoid any fuss being made, elicits as much information as he can from them, and sends them on to Bethlehem, as being their probable destination. He even encourages them to come back and tell him all about it, a charm offensive which they luckily do not fall for.

the angel warning the Magi not to go back and tell Herod anything

They set off from Jerusalem, and you can feel the lift of their hearts as Matthew says,’And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising’, which leads them directly to where they want to be, ‘right over the place where Jesus lay’, as the carol says .

Presents for a new baby

They are filled with joy and delight, they greet the little family, they fall to their knees and pay homage to the child. And only after this do they produce the presents, even though crib figures mean that we all grow up with the idea of them solemnly processing with their gifts clasped in front of them.

the star marking the spot, and presents for the baby king

This is a very encouraging moment, because they burrow in their saddlebags and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are gifts of wealth, honour, and luxury. Although Jesus has been born in a barn with no facilities or any arrangements for his arrival apart from what Mary and Joseph have managed to bring with them, these are not gifts to relieve abject poverty.  The Magi don’t hand over anything like a robe to be used as a blanket, for example.   They don’t offer food.  The gold is ceremonial, not part of a whipround.  ‘Opening their treasuries’,  they give things appropriate to another person of wealth and status, so I think we can assume that the Holy Family has managed to make itself comfortable and is not in dire need.  That’s a relief.

Everyone likes giving presents

Giving presents is a deep human instinct, and a very endearing one.  Everyone loves to give presents, and most of us are better at giving them than receiving them graciously (certainly I am).  We seize any occasion to give presents : a new house, a new job, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, saints’ days,  anniversaries, or just for love (the ‘unbirthday’ present).   New babies are a wonderful opportunity to give a gift, which nearly everyone takes advantage of.

Presents from the shepherds

I am sure that the shepherds would have brought something with them when they came to see the baby which the Angel had announced to them.   At that stage, Mary and Joseph were on their uppers and the baby was lying in the animals’ feeding trough.  So I think they would have given gifts of comfort and necessity : a fleece, maybe even some milk and cheese for Mary, perhaps a bundle of firewood or something.  That’s like the collections that we have for refugees nowadays.  You wouldn’t give them perfume and spices, you provide for urgent need : clothes, shoes, blankets. (The shepherds also seem to have brought their instruments, so presumably they play the baby a lullaby.  Shepherds are famous musicians, as we have seen before.)

I never travel without my bagpipes
giving what you can
Worth and value

Everybody loves to give.  Children present you with pictures just as soon as they learn to hold a pencil.  If you go for a walk, they give you conkers or acorns.  If you are by the sea, it’s shells or an attractive pebble.  Surely this is part of the point of a kiss.  It is something you give.  People may kiss you against your will (especially in families at Christmas or New Year, for example), but a kiss is only worthwhile if it is given.  It is a gift with no actual substance other than the act of giving.  Gifts don’t need to be worth anything.  Gifts that are worth nothing can be valued more than any other possession, because of the giver or the occasion.  A gift is valid all by itself.  The Magi’s gifts were probably less immediately useful than the shepherds’, however much they were worth, but everyone has to give what he can, like the Christina Rossetti poem In the bleak midwinter.

The Magi’s gifts in the Psalms

There is no textual evidence for the shepherds’gifts, however likely they seem to be, however many pictures of them there are.  Why do we hear about the Wise Men’s presents and not the shepherds?  Because they are mentioned in the psalms. ‘The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute.  The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts’ (Psalm 71/72).   Matthew is concerned while writing his Gospel to show how all of the birth narrative has been foretold, so whenever there’s a chance to make the point specifically, he does so. Isaiah  in the first reading last Sunday foretells even the gold and the incense (and the camels).  This is all evidence of the divine plan, reassuring for those who know the Jewish prophecies already, as well as for those who start from the figure of Jesus and then look back.

Jesus and presents

Look at Jesus’ attitude to giving.  He doesn’t often have anything material to give, but when he does, he does not just fulfil the need, he is lavish (the wedding at Cana).  He talks about generosity, and tells us that God will not be outdone.  He’s not interested in the value of what we give, but in the giving.  Mark and Luke both tell the story of the poor widow who gives a measly tuppence to the Temple treasury, and of Jesus’ words of respect and commendation.  This is not a parable, it is an event, and the woman is real.  You give what you can, and God supplies the rest.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

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