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


Lead Sponsors: JRLC Day on the Hill

“Change Begins With Us!”

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates are again “Lead Sponsors” of the JRLC (Joint Religious Legislative Coalition) Day on the Hill.  It is a powerful and potent day of  “interfaith advocacy for social justice” that again includes over 800 representatives of all 67 Minnesota Legislative Districts.

Dr. Sayyid Syeed, National Director, Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America is presenting the keynote speech after which we will hear from Patrice Critchley-Menor, Diocese of Duluth regarding “Building our Coalitions.”

The issue briefings this year are: 

Family Economic Security Act          Human Trafficking

Budget Priorities and Taxes              Homes for All       Impartial Judiciary

At 11:45 the 2013 Lawrence D. Gibson Interfaith Social Justice Award will be presented to Governor Albert H. Quie and the 2013 Interfaith Social Justice Organization Award will be presented to Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness, Minneapolis

This afternoon affords participants the opportunity to meet with their legislators to bring the 2013 issues of the JRLC to their attention, encourage their support and leadership.

Part of being at the JRLC Day on the Hill is the opportunity to network with others, to connect with colleagues, hear from powerful leaders and get energized to continue to work of “collecting the power for mission (CSJ Acts of Chapter 2001).”

Our CSJ Table provided people with a bookmark highlighting our March events, including Breaking the Impasse IV with Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director, NETWORK, A Catholic Social Justice Lobby and Nan Madden, Director, Minnesota Budget Project; 11th Day Prayer for Peace, March 11 “International Women’s Day” which is being planned with St. Catherine University Multi-Cultural and International Programs, Campus Ministry and the Women’s Center; and a list of CSJ ministries with websites.  In addition, CSJ offered gifts of “Hooked by the Spirit,” the life story of Rita Steinhagen, CSJ and “In Search of the Divine: Immigration” (ISD) to visitors our table.

Having immigration as the topic of the newest ISD providing voice to three people who migrated to the United States and are now citizens, is powerful with Immigration Reform having more support than anytime since 1986.  The DVDs are now in the hands of high school students, high school teachers, parish leaders, the Minnesota Council of Churches and United Theological Seminary to name but a few. 

JRLC Day on the Hill is another example of the great non-partisan work that is critical to a healthy democracy.

Posted by:  Ginger K. Hedstrom, Justice Associate

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Standing Together: A Prayer of Gratitude for Women Religious

The doors to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Presentation (Sisters of St. Joseph, 1890 Randolph Avenue, St. Paul) opened shortly after 5:00 to welcome people to this prayer of gratitude for women religous in Minnesota.  The first arrived shortly after 5:15 for the 6:30 prayer, beginning a steady stream of eager-to-share in this prayer of gratitude prepared by Call to Action-Minnesota and the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates.

By 6:20 p.m. all 300 worship aids and prayer cards had been distributed and the chapel, atrium and balcony were filled with the joyful sights and sounds of the more than 340 people gathered.  One woman was overheard excitedly saying, “I have seen some people tonight I have not seen in 40 years!”

The prayer was woven seamlessly together beginning with Meg Gillespie, CSJ, member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Province Leadership Team warmly welcoming everyone, to Joanne Tromiczak-Neid, Justice Coordinator telling the story of receiving a call from a Pioneer Press reporter after the tragic events of 9/11/2001 that led to the CSJ commitment to offer public prayer monthly as a peaceful and hopeful response.  Mary Novak, Call to Action-Minnesota then led us in Standing Together:  A Prayer of Gratitude for Women Religious. Three witnesses told stories of the impact women religious had on their lives and throughout the State. Fr. Jan Michael Joncas, composer of “On Eagles Wings” was inspired to compose a special song for the ocassion, “Hold On.” He led the congregation as his gift was sung for the first time publicly.  Marilaurice Hemlock led the Litany of the Saints which she adapted to include the names of the 44 communities of women religious in Minnesota.

The service ended with the chapel ringing again with all voices raised singing “Blest Are They” after which the planners, the Province Leadership Team, Ruben Rosario and participants were presented with a commemorative poster by artist Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ.  The greeting of peace continued this great opportunity for people to come together in gratitude.  As a gift the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates, commemorative posters were available to guests as they left the chapel.

Posted by:  Ginger K. Hedstrom, Justice Associate

Women’s History Month Reflection

As we move into the first week of April, I am called to reflect on March – Women’s History Month.
A single experience of March that comes to mind is the 11th Day Prayer for Peace – Celebrating Women—hosted by the St. Joseph Worker Program. The time spent with friends and in front of the computer for the planning of this event is memorable, and yet what that time provided is what resonates: to learn more about women who have laid the path for me, especially those from the CSJ community.
During the service, we recalled the lineage of women leadership that has come before all of us. Women who fought for the rights we enjoy today, who infuse society with love and passion that we carry in our hearts, and who opened the societal perceptions of women. In the narrative of this lineage, our hope was to name the unnamed sheroes that make up so much of this lineage, especially members of the CSJ Community who have gone uncelebrated and unnamed despite the large contributions provided.
With the help of Jill Underdahl, Mary Kaye Medinger and Mary Kraft, we were able to name and more fully understand three Sisters of St. Joseph from our lineage. Sister Jackie Slater (1934-1984) who integrated her values and relationships within her community as she served three terms on City Council representing the diverse Sixth Ward of Minneapolis. Sister St. Mark Wirtz (1904-1962) who had a deep passion for all of creation and carried this passion into her many positions at the College of St. Catherine as an Ornithologist. Finally, Sister Rita Steinhagen (1928-2006) who’s actions are often recognized within the great lineage of social justice leadership, but we chose to highlight the motivation for her work which was steeped in her experiences and relationships with people.
Several weeks after that beautiful service in the Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel, I still have a burning curiosity for the fullness and depth of the lineage of women which leads to my heart, mind and feet. I encourage everyone to learn a bit more about one woman who has inspired you as a leader– with the caution that once you learn a little you will be captivated.
–Elizabeth Fairbairn, St. Joseph Worker & Justice Office Intern

December Peace Prayer: Advent Vespers & Our Lady of Guadalupe

This past Sunday, the Justice Office co-sponsored the Advent Vespers put on by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet & Consociates, St. Paul Province. It was a celebration of Advent with beautiful singing and quiet moments for meditation–much needed in this peaceful but busy time. During the advent celebration, Our Lady of Guadalupe was held up and celebrated. Her feast day was yesterday (December 12th) and coincided beautifully with the vespers service on Sunday evening.

Karen Kenelly, CSJ, did the reflection for the evening. She shared the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a written account can be found here, as well as the traditions of the Feast Day she experienced while living in Los Angeles. Karen was delighted to find hot chocolate, one of the many traditions, as a part of the reception after the Vespers.

This prayer, found below, was given to attendees as they left the chapel.

Mary, Holy Mother of God, we salute and honor you.
In this season of darkness, we await the coming feast of the birth of God’s Son,
We do pray to you, Mother of the Lord of Light.
Hail to you, Holy Sun Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Patroness of the Americas.
We watch the winter sun, our source of heat and light, our calendar maker,
as it wanes and prepares for rebirth.
Holy sun, mystic mother of ages past, be for us a living sign.
Holy Virgin of Tepayac, with the sun as your mantle,
you who are clothed with yellow light, the moon under your feet,
with stars for your crown: we honor you.
Holy earth mother, holy lady of the star-filled night,
mother of the candles and lamps, we praise you.
Thank you for the protection of our land, for your loving kindness and many gifts.
Protect our homes, guard our families,
our world, and our congregation,
watch over us forever. Amen
-Liturgical Service, Mount St. Mary’s, Los Angeles

-Elizabeth Fairbairn, St. Joseph Worker & Justice Office Intern
**Art by Baya Clare, CSJ