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Desert gifts

Sunday, January 5, 2020

From Matthew 2
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. Behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They laid flat on the ground and honored him. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Note to reader: Today’s is the last of this year’s Advent, Christmas and Epiphany devotions. Thank you for sharing them with me. God bless the coming weeks of what the Catholic Church calls “ordinary time.”

I think, too, this may be the last of the devotions I will be writing. After twenty years perhaps the time has come for me to make a change. I keep praying about that.

Just in case I don’t write during this coming Lent and Easter, I want to thank you again for your silent companionship on this journey. Blessings to you!


In monasteries around the world postulants, like doctors, spend years preparing for their solemn profession. And then (unlike doctors) they lie flat upon the floor, prostrate to receive the blessing of their brothers or sisters.

Can’t you see the magi lying flat on the floor in front of Jesus? They have followed the star, they have brought gifts, but what they seek must come from the child’s lifted hand, from God’s blessing.

What are they listening for, as they lie there, eyes closed, praying? Not for Jesus to speak, exactly. But they are listening. All their senses are acutely tuned to whatever happens in the presence of this baby Jesus.

Mary watches them, her child with these colorfully clothed Asian kings, and listens too. The silence is sudden and sweet, deafening and delightful. The air gleams with gold and is filled with frankincense.

These wise men long ago chose to give up their certainties to make this quest. Perhaps they sought answers at first, but now they see their questions are unimportant. G. K. Chesterton knew that, and wrote:

Their gold is brought to a stable; the kings go seeking a carpenter. The wise men are on the march, not to find wisdom, but rather a strong and sacred ignorance.

What they found might be called, and was called by the angels, “goodwill to all men.” Chesterton knew that too:

The idea of embodying goodwill – that is, of putting it into a body – is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present.

The wise men’s methods were measured by Eastern rules, not western. They came in glorious, colored robes, purple and pink and crimson and green. Chesterton detects another gift:

The Church took all the labyrinthine gold and crawling colours which in the Orient had adorned so many erotic poems and cruel romances, and she lit those motley flames to illuminate gigantic humility and the greater intensities of innocence.

Watch the Vatican Christmas Eve service. Notice the sculpture, the architecture, the gold and silver. Notice the robes of priests and cardinals and pope, in all the colors of the rainbow. Magi brought the beginnings of all of this, the dust of Judea replaced in an instant by the silver and gold of kings.

Such a long trip they made to see the Child, but they couldn’t stay long. Warned in a dream, the magi “left for their own country by another way.” Herod’s rage rocked Judea anyway, and on a dark night as the holy family escaped to Egypt, soldiers slaughtered countless innocents in their cribs.

Jesus did not come to bring peace, as he said, “but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). But surely he was not approving rampage and murder driven by self-righteousness and religious fear. Chesterton sees another side to the gunpowder foretold by Jesus:

Now Christianity, whatever else it is, is an explosion. Whether or not it consists of the Fall, the Incarnation, The Resurrection, it does certainly consist of thunder, of prodigy, and of fire. Unless it is sensational there is simply no sense in it.

Unless the Gospel sounds like a gun going off it has not been uttered at all. And if the new theologies sound like steam slowly escaping from a leaky kettle, then even the untrained ear of the ordinary layman (who knows neither chemistry nor theology) can detect the difference between that sound and an explosion.

* * *

O Lord, I lift my eyes up to the mountains and lift my ears to the heavens, I raise my hands and open my mouth in praise. All our senses seek the presence of God’s baby king. Jesus is Lord. The magi praise him, the rocks cry out, we are all your children now.

G. K. Chesterton, “The Theology of Christmas Presents,” in The Contemporary Review, January 1910

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