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“WHO COMES BEARING GIFTS?” (Mt 2:1-12): 06 January 2008 (Epiphany of the Lord, Sunday)

“WHO COMES BEARING GIFTS?” (Mt 2:1-12):  06 January 2008 (Epiphany of the Lord, Sunday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/010608.shtml

We know the saying, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” It’s a reference to the story of the Trojan War.   For ten years, the Greeks waged war against Troy, but for many reasons couldn’t win it. Then Odysseus devised a clever plan:  They built a giant hollow wooden horse outside the walls of Troy, and pretended to leave it as a peace offering.  Against the advice of their seers, the Trojans accepted the gift and held a night of revelry to celebrate the end of the ten-year siege.  Unknown to them, the  wooden horse was filled with hundreds of Greek soldiers, who in the dark of night climbed out of their hiding place when the entire city was in a drunken stupor.  They opened the gates of the city to let the other Greeks in.  Needless to say, the entire city of Troy was destroyed.  Hence, the warning about Greeks and deadly gifts.

Today the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, the question I ask is: “Who comes bearing gifts?”  The wise men who visited the stable didn’t know that they could have been “Greeks bearing gifts.”  Their visit and their gifts were dangerous.  As we know, Herod wanted to destroy the baby Jesus.  He had instructed the wise men to provide him with information about the child when they find him.  Fortunately, they received a warning from an angel in a dream, and thank God the wise men were wise enough to follow the warning.  We are told that they “departed for their country by another way” so as to avoid Herod.  Had they not taken that precaution, they would have encountered Herod’s forces and put the child and its family in danger.

I think one lesson we can learn from the visit of the wise men is that gift giving can be a dangerous thing. If we are not careful, our gifts can lead to unforeseen troubles and problems. The wise men’s visit and their gifts were driven by good intentions, but if they had not heeded the signs sent to them, they would have ended up harming the baby Jesus instead.  The best gifts wrapped with even the best of intentions are not enough; we should also be mindful of the effects of our gifts.

And so, careful the gifts we give.  Gifts can be deadly, especially when our basis for giving gifts is our own needs rather than the needs of the people we’re giving them to.  For example, we want our children to love us—that is our need—so we give them what they ask for, not realizing that giving in to them may not be very helpful.  Or we feel guilty for neglecting a friend or our own spouse, so we feel the need to make up for our negligence and to feel better, and we end up buying the person something that may not necessarily be good for him or her.  To make sure that our gift can be considered a true gift, it should be based neither on our own needs or the mere desires of the person we’re giving it to, but on his or her needs. The gifts we give should lead to the good of the person

When they visited, the wise men came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but those were not the only gifts they brought.  These gifts were for the baby, but when you think about it, the visit itself was a special and much-needed gift for Mary and Joseph, for the whole family. When the wise men from the East asked for the king of the Jews and prostrated themselves before the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph received a special gift of confirmation.  The visit was, for them, a most important sign—confirming that everything they had gone through, all their difficulties and trials, had a purpose and meaning.

We must remember that for Mary and Joseph, the road leading to Bethlehem was full of danger and difficulties.  When Mary accepted God’s invitation relayed to her by the angel Gabriel, she ran the risk of losing Joseph.  When Joseph followed the angel in his dream to take Mary as his wife despite the circumstances, Joseph put his own reputation at stake because he knew that people would be murmuring about them behind their backs.  Then, before Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, it took them a while before they finally found a place to stay!

So when the wise men visited with their gifts and recounted to them how they had traveled far guided by a star to find the King of the Jews, Mary and Joseph must have been experienced their own private epiphany, comforted and assured that all that they had done and all that they had gone through was worth it.

In fact, we can almost say that this gift from the magi may have been for Mary and Joseph a far more valuable gift than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  For if the road leading to Bethlehem was dangerous and difficult, the road from Bethlehem was fraught with far greater danger and difficulty. That very night, Joseph, Mary, and the child would be forced to leave for Egypt to flee from the wrath of Herod, and they had to live in exile for some time before returning home to Nazareth.

When the shepherds had come to the stable in Bethlehem, Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”    Certainly, the wise men’s visit was also one of the things Mary treasured in her heart and helped sustain her and Joseph in their trials.   Certainly, while in Egypt, Mary and Joseph occasionally drew from their memories to make it through those difficult times.

Another lesson we can draw from the visit of the wise men, therefore, is simply to remember our gifts, to keep them in our hearts the way Mary did, and let them provide us with our own private epiphanies.  Every family goes through good times and bad times. When our families encounter difficulties and trials in our lives, we can do as the Holy Family did.  They remembered their gifts. They counted their blessings.  As a result, their hearts were always grateful and they never gave up.  The memory of gifts that they had received sustained them through their difficulties.  As they recalled their happy experiences, they were able to draw strength from the good memories that they gathered.  Even if they did not like what was happening, even if they did not completely understand what they were going through, they refused to let the bad times overshadow the good.

As Christmas, this season of gift-giving, draws to an end, the Epiphany of the Lord teaches us about the gifts we give as well as the gifts we receive.  Properly unwrapped, our gifts can provide epiphanies about ourselves and our lives.

(image: from the movie “Troy,” courtesy of www.armchairgeneral.com)

Note:  The Epiphany of the Lord refers to his manifestation to the nations, as represented by the wise men from the East.  But as I wrote above, it could also very well refer to the private epiphany experienced by Mary and Joseph.  If you wish, watch the slideshow called “Mary’s Epiphany,” which features the highlights of her life–the Mysteries of the Rosary, if you wish.  As background, I used the song called “Mary” by Patty Griffin.

Mary
(from lyricsfreak.com)

Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains
You cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud
Of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
On some sunny day and always stay, Mary

Jesus says, “Mother, I couldn’t stay another day longer;
Flies right by me,” and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Everytime the snow drifts, everytime the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts, she’s always there

Jesus said, “Mother, I couldn’t stay another day longer;
Flies right by me,” and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ruin
you’re covered in secrets
Your’e covered in treetops, you’re covered in birds
who can sing a million songs without any words
You cast aside the sheets, you cast aside the shroud
of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
on some sunny day and always stay
Mary, Mary, Mary

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