Epiphany and the gifts of Christmas
“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” [Matthew 2.11]
When I was about 12, my parents took me on a holiday to Spain at around Christmas time. It was the first time I had ever been abroad. And in Spain, I discovered that people were very different - there was a different culture, a different language, a whole different way of doing things. And although almost everything I encountered was a bit different, the Spanish way of doing things seemed really just as good as ours, even though I’d always assumed that there was only one way of doing anything and that was always the British way. And, even though I was only there for two weeks, I really grew to like many of the previously strange customs of the Spanish people.
However, there was one Spanish practice to which - as a 12-year old boy - I was completely and implacably opposed. They didn’t seem to celebrate Christmas at all. There were no parties at Christmas time. No Christmas carols. No rush to the shops. No Santa Claus. And worst of all - when I woke up on Christmas morning, for the first time in my life - there were no presents.
None at all!! Not even a mouldy orange!
I invite you to contemplate the absolute horror of that moment.
As you might imagine, I made something of a fuss about this. I knew my rights! When you are a 12-year old boy, Christmas presents are definitely at the top of the Terms and Conditions. My mother subsequently described it as my worst tantrum for ten years.
It was explained to me that the way the Spanish see it, Christmas is not for celebrating and having parties and presents and eating too much and watching old films on television; it is much too serious for that. What they celebrate , if that’s really the right word , is the birth of a small, weak, defenceless baby, in the most dreadful circumstances, to a poor and lonely couple a long way from home and under threat of death from the King of Judaea.
No, the time that the Spanish truly celebrate is this feast of the Epiphany when the Kings recognise the huge possibilities that lie within this Child and bring Him gifts. I am pleased to say that is when my new bicycle finally arrived. Not before time!
And the message of the Epiphany is in the gifts that the Kings bring: gold to celebrate the Wealth of God’s creation; Frankincense to celebrate his Power in the World and Myrrh to symbolise his approaching death.
Because both the Magi and the Spanish remember that any genuine attempt to bring good, to bring God, into the World always meets with opposition and with violence. That is why Herod wanted to kill the child. That is why we know that the life, whose beginning we celebrated at Christmas, will end at Easter on Calvary with the Lord’s Death, and Resurrection, for Our Salvation.
But those gifts are not for themselves, but for the Christ. The kings do not come to be served but to serve. These kings do not ask what Christ will do for them, but what they will do for the Christ. They give their own possessions – their wealth, their power, their entire lives to the service of the Presence of God in the World.
Let us pray that we may be given the grace to do likewise.
Paul O'Reilly SJ