Were the Magi the kings of returned Christmas presents?

A couple of days before Christmas, I was listening to a local Christian radio station near my hometown when a modern rendition of “We Three Kings” came on. After the song, one host announced that she had always been irked by the impractical kings.

I mean, you’ve got this little baby laying in a stable in the cold, and these guys are coming in and bringing him gold…it would have been better to at least give him a blanket!

That host’s indignation over this ancient story got me thinking. It’s the sort of common sense response that children use to stump their elders, leading frazzled parents and faith formation teachers alike to respond with the faith-killing “because that’s the way it is.” I fell in love with theology for the precise reason that it encourages everyone and anyone to ask hard questions. Rather than dismissing the hosts’ comment, I have set out to provide a few possible answers stemming from different ways of reading the story.

Why did the Magi bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh? Couldn’t they have come up with something more practical?

  • Literary Lens. (This is probably the most common answer to why the Wise Men/Three Kings/Magi bring Jesus gold, myrrh and frankincense.) The gifts are little more than representations of Jesus’ kinghood and status as self-sacrificing Messiah—all the more necessary for his being born in a stable. The gold is for his status as King, the frankincense for his role as High Priest, and the myrrh to preserve his body after death. The gifts are foreshadowing for the life of Christ.
  • Historical Lens. The Magi, a class/tribe of Persian scholar-priests, are bringing gifts for a King just as modern diplomats bring gifts to the leaders of other states. If you have ever been to the UN building in New York, you may have seen many beautiful and varied objects from around the world, gifted to the UN in a sign of peace and support. The Magi, as demonstrated in Matthew 2:1-12 are bringing a royal dignitary a gesture of goodwill. Especially since they, too, were waiting for a savior- one they called a saoshyant,  who could “defeat the forces of evil, resurrect the dead, banish old age and decay from the world, and would usher in a new age for humanity“.
  • Scientific Lens. According to some researchers at Cardiff University, frankincense holds medicinal use as an anti-inflammatory, and is still used in some countries today to help arthritis. As learned men, it is likely the magi would have known of the many uses of frankincense.
  • Theological Lens. This answer is coming from the opposite direction; namely, Jesus’ own teachings. This hits on the modern frustration of giving money vs. giving objects which makes so many people uncomfortable (or irate) about panhandling or social services.

An example:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”  Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  (Matt 26:6-12)

Now, for many people this verse is problematic in and of itself. What I’m concerned with here is the fact that the disciples are using an argument that is still used today. Here, a woman has “wasted” an expensive oil that could have been sold, and the money donated. Why doesn’t Jesus tell her off?

Though the disciples are well-meaning, what they miss is that the woman is providing Jesus with exactly what he needs right then and there. Similarly, the Magi are providing Jesus with what he needs, as strange as it seems to us. Symbolically, they are paving the path down which the adult Jesus will trod, and bringing a reminder of divinity to a young couple who just brought a child into the world in a stable behind an overfilled inn. Practically, Mary and Joseph have to buy food and shelter for themselves, not to mention that they are about to flee their country soon after the Magi visit.

Perhaps the Magi were God’s way of bringing some stability to the life of Their Son. Symbolically and practically, the magi’s gifts are gifts of possibility. A blanket might have kept Jesus warm (presuming he was cold to begin with) but it would not have provided him or his family with lasting shelter, or his parents with food. Maybe the gifts were sold, and the money used by the Holy Family. Maybe they were donated to the Temple in thanksgiving and glorification of God. Maybe they were kept safe, and that same gift of myrrh included in the oils and spices prepared by the women for Jesus’ embalming.

Whatever the true answer may be, it is clear that God led the Magi (and later, the woman with expensive oil) to give exactly what was needed, despite all our confusion and our outrage. How often are we proud of our helpfulness, like the disciples, only to discover that the person who we are ‘serving’ has needs completely opposite of those we were trying to fill? It is easy to give from our places of logic and self-righteousness, rather than asking what it is that the presence of God truly requires. And often, as in so many things, what God requires seems contradictory to what we think is reasonable.

As we enter into this New Year, let us all be unreasonable and humble in our service to the God who is present in the midst of our spiritual poverty.

This week is National Migration Week. Consider asking what is needed by those who are migrating, immigrating, or seeking asylum in the Twin Cities area. We will celebrate 11th Day Prayer for Peace: A Stranger and You Welcomed Me from 6:30-7 :30 at the Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel, co-sponsored by the Anti Human Trafficking, Dismantling Racism, and Immigration Working/Task Groups.


Written by Elea Ingman, Program Assistant


Altruism: Courageous survival or just bats in the belfrey?

This past weekend I went to the bluffs to camp. Nature in many ways informs my sense of wonder in the divine, and always assures me of the impermanence of all things. The greatest lesson of impermanence looked a lot like a disturbing encounter with my own fragility. I am awakened to my intolerance for crusty pots and pans laced with dying bugs, my reluctance for adapting to the reality that I can’t control the temperature at the tip of my finger and my discomfort for sleeping on imperfect terrain. Independent control freak doesn’t even begin to describe my disposition.

On the car ride down I was soaking up one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab. “The Good Show” explores Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest as it interacts with the capability of niceness and altruism in nature. The popular scientific understanding suggests that niceness is a disguised selfishness, a motivation to aid our genes … just in another body. So maybe we aren’t really all that altruistic ?


Altrisum picYet, this show listed endless examples of humans going above and beyond what would look like a selfish act. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich feature the story of a man who jumped on a subway track to save a stranger in immediate danger of being hit by a train, meanwhile, his children stood watching him from the platform! The man described this experience as sort of a spiritual calling, being in the right place at the right time and that it was an intended call to action from God. I think about the CSJ community and the ways Sisters, Partners in Mission and Consociates have gone above and beyond to meet the dear neighbor. Darwin must’ve been distressed by this… how then does this attest to the notion of survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world? Clearly, some caring is going on, and there is a lot of mutual movement toward it.

That driving force can be looked at from a variety of perspectives. What I liked most was another example from a RadioLab Short from the behavior of vampire bats. Vampire bats exhibit a similar sort of niceness toward one another. For being quite gruesome in their mammalian blood thirst, they actually caress and feed each other! They will even feed a starving stranger, and not exclusively their relatives. This was looked at as an active choice in friendship networks, initially. Yet, Jerry Wilkinson (chair of Biology at the University of Maryland College Park) on the show suggests that it can also be seen as the only option for them as a species. Nearly 40,000 years ago they were happily fed, but as resources declined they were inclined to really help one another to survive.

Perhaps my disguised selfishness assumes I may feel good from the exchange, or maybe I subconsciously want to expand my social network of Facebook friends. But after meditating on the theme of this podcast during a retreat in nature, I like to believe the active and visceral choice (self-motivated or divinely inspired) to move always toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction is an evolutionary act simply because … well, isn’t that the most ideal condition for existence? Even the most unlikely subject of vampire bats can teach us about the rewards of altruism in nature. After all, I eventually acclimated to the crunchy surprises in my food, and this warm (non-regurgitated) meal was gifted to me from another beloved human animal. I couldn’t have adapted without their fitness! When I thought I frankly couldn’t survive on my own in the woods, the circumstances of altruism allowed me to see otherwise.

Where do you experience niceness? Where does it come from? Why are we so inclined and called to help one another when we are distressed?


This post was written by Megan Bender, Justice Associate