The Gifts of the Magi
Feast of the Epiphany: 6 January, 2013
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
The visit to the home of Jesus by the Magi or wise men is one of those stories that appear in only one gospel, Matthew. It may well be, as Anthony J Saldarini suggests, that the community of Matthew, that is the church for which this gospel was written, was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians struggling to make sense of their new existence in the midst of opposition from the synagogues and varying intensities of persecution from the Roman Empire.
It is as if the writer is saying to readers: no matter what political intrigues are swirling around us, no matter what ideas are vying our allegiance and no matter what voices are demanding to be heard, it is Jesus to whom our loyalty belongs. For it is to Jesus that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are given.
Traditionally, the gift of gold stands for the kingship of Christ, the frankincense for his divinity and the myrrh for his humanity, or more specifically his death. These valuable things, though they are not the only gifts the Magi bring. They also offer themselves, the expertise that brings them, the courage that sustains them and the wisdom that gets them home. These wise men, sages as they are known, come as gift givers and they come in response to the greatest gift given to humanity — Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Initially it is God who gives all gifts — the gift of creation, the gift of life, the gift of the Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes we recognise these gifts and need to and want to respond. Other times we take them for granted and even see ourselves at the centre of life. Then at best we give in order to receive and are disappointed if we do not receive in equal proportion (or better) to our own giving.
The Magi provide us with an important example. They brought their gifts in response to a great initiative of God. And they faithfully brought them not to Herod, the official king of the Jews, but to the home of a humble family and laid them at the feet of the child.
The story tells us that Herod was troubled by the news of the appearance of the Magi. This image tallies with what we know about him. He would not tolerate challenges to his leadership and had members of his family and court executed at the slightest hint of disloyalty. As the second chapter of Matthew unfolds we read of the dangers that existed for those who opposed Herod. The Magi are warned in a dream to return a different way and the Holy Family must flee to Egypt to escape the massacre of the Innocents.
As it was in New Testament times, so it has been through subsequent centuries: those who bring their gifts to Jesus do so in political, economic and personal turbulence. We too bring our gifts to our Lord in turbulent times. Our brothers and sisters in Christ bring their gifts to Christ in turbulent times.
Looking back just over the last twelve months we could raise many examples of Christians who bring their gifts to their Lord in the midst of great challenge and difficulty — war, natural disaster, sickness, disappointment, grief may all serve to distract us from the one who deserves our gifts. The Magi remind us that it is not just in the midst of these things that we offer our gifts but even because of them. As we read in psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the hills; but where shall I find help? My help comes from the Lord; who has made heaven and earth."
Our lives are bombarded by bad news stories but if we take the trouble to look we can find examples of those prepared to give for the betterment of others. For example, activist and author, Frances Moore Lappé, has written of what has happened in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte when, in 1993 local politicians accepted responsibility for those of their citizens who did not have enough good food to eat. The following are excerpts from an article Frances wrote about her visit to Belo. 
Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market-you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you...
...The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce — which often reached 100 percent — to consumers and the farmers. Farmers' profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food...
...Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy "People's Restaurants" (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of diners — grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still others in business suits...
...No one has to prove they're poor to eat in a People's Restaurant, although about 85 percent of the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma and allows "food with dignity," say those involved.
Belo's food security initiatives also include extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food mostly from local growers.
The result of these and other related innovations?
In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate — widely used as evidence of hunger — by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city's 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.
The cost of these efforts?
Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That's about a penny a day per Belo resident.
Behind this dramatic, life-saving change is what [a former city official] calls a "new social mentality" — the realization that "everyone in our city benefits if all of us have access to good food, so — like health care or education — quality food for all is a public good." 
As citizens of a country of plenty there is much for us to consider in this article. As Christians who worship in an inner city parish there is much for us to consider too. Our parish's Lazarus Centre Breakfast program does much to alleviate hunger amongst the homeless of Melbourne. As I was walking to worship this morning I met up with one of the Breakfast Program participants. I asked him how he was going. "Much better now." he replied, "I feel I can face the day when I've had breakfast." As much as we are already doing, Frances Moore Lappé's work challenges us to think and to pray and work towards what more might be possible.
This feast of Epiphany is a time of reflection about the gifts we bring. We will say at the conclusion of the mass that, "we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice..." This is the appropriate response to the gift of Christ. It is the response modelled by the ones who came from the East risking all to pay homage to their rightful King. It is an appropriate response for us as we seek to offer our God given gifts to each other.
- Anthony J. Saldarini, "Matthew", in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn & John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans publishing Co., 2003) 1000-1004, 1008.
- Frances Moore Lappé wrote this article as part of Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Frances is the author of many books including Diet for a Small Planet and Get a Grip. YES! Magazine is a national, non-profit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.