THIS BUSINESS OF GIFT-GIVING (Matthew 2:1-12): 04 January 2009 (Epiphany of Our Lord)
Today, the Feast of Your Epiphany, we remember the visit of the magi–those astrologers (how many they were, we don’t know) who read the stars and were among the first to lay their eyes on you. They were not exactly kings, but they were certainly wise men since they detected Herod’s schemes and followed the angel’s message to go home some other way. They are, of course, today credited for the the tradition of gift-giving that has in many ways defined the season of Christmas. And so today, perhaps it’s good to think about this business of gift-giving.
When I was a kid, a stranger—somebody I had never seen before—appeared out of nowhere, came up to me, and offered me a piece of candy. I still remember, it was a piece of Juicy Fruit Gum. I immediately recalled my mother’s words: “Don’t talk to strangers. It’s safer to avoid them.” So I did what I thought was the best thing to do: I ran away.
Lord, I’m pretty sure most of us would do the same thing today. The reaction is quite understandable. After all, we have no idea who this person is, and we don’t know what his intentions are in offering us a gift. And because of the many bad things going on around us, better to be suspicious of strangers. Better play it safe.
But it’s funny how different my reaction is if the person giving me the same chewing gum is not a stranger, but someone I know—say, somebody who works with me. Even if this person isn’t close to me, my reaction would be very different from my reaction to the stranger. I would no longer be suspicious or afraid. I’m sure like many others, I not even have any second thought about accepting the gift. I would probably immediately unwrap the chewing gum and pop it into my mouth. Because the giver of the gift is not a stranger, but somebody I know—even if only an acquaintance—even if it is the same kind of chewing gum, the same flavor, the same brand, I would have absolutely no difficulty in accepting the gift. Instead of getting suspicious or afraid the way I would feel with a stranger, I would even appreciate the gift and the gesture from an acquaintance.
But Lord, I hate to say this but I think most of us would appreciate the gift more if it not just any local brand of chewing gum, but an expensive brand of imported chocolate—for example, several pieces of See’s candies. Even if I’m not particularly brand-conscious, somehow just because the gift is more expensive—and more delicious—I’m sure to end up appreciating the gift, as well as the giver, more. If an acquaintance, somebody I did not think much about, one day suddenly gave me imported chocolates, I would not be able to help but tell myself, “He or she is such a generous person, after all! Imagine, imported chocolates!”
So, when it comes to people I know, my so-called acquaintances, it seems that the value of the gift—how delicious it is, how expensive it is—has a way of affecting the way I look at the person giving the gift. If the gift is not particularly expensive and only “so-so,” I would still be grateful to the person giving the gift, but the gratitude I would feel is also only “so-so” compared to my reaction if the gift is something I really like. The gift affects the way we look at the giver of the gift. That seems to be the rule of the game.
But note that this rule is not true when the person giving the gift is not just an acquaintance, not just somebody we know, but somebody who is very close to us, somebody whom we love. If the person giving us the gift happens to be our best friend, or our closest brother or sister, or parents, or a favorite teacher—or especially someone we have a crush on—it doesn’t matter so much anymore what the gift is, how expensive it is, or whether it’s imported or local. If the gift-giver is somebody we truly value, it is no longer the case that the gift affects the way we look at the giver of the gift. Rather, now it is the gift-giver that affects the way we look at the gift. If it’s somebody we really really love who is giving us the gift, we would be thrilled to get even just Juicy Fruit Gum. So in the case of a friend, someone whom we love and someone we value, it is the person giving the gift that affects the way we look at the gift. Because the giver is somebody we trust and love, because he is a friend, we appreciate the gift almost regardless of its own value.
So, it’s funny—this business of gifts: The person giving us the gift somehow affects the way we value the gift. If it’s a stranger, we get suspicious and look at his gift as something bad or dangerous. This is not the case when the person giving the gift is someone we know. But if the person is only an acquaintance, it is his gift that affects the way we look at him. But if the giver of the gift is somebody special to us, somebody we love, somebody who is a friend, then it is the person that affects the way we look at his gift.
This whole business of gifts can actually apply to our relationship with God as well. After all, we all believe that everything we have is from God. Our life, all our possessions, our parents, our family, our teachers and friends, our talents, the way we are, even the way we look—all these things are gifts from God. So I think it would be good to ask ourselves: How do I feel about all these things? How do I look at them? Because the way we look at these gifts from God, how we feel about them, will tell us about our relationship with God in much the same way that how we look at the gifts we get tells us about our relationship with the persons giving us the gifts.
If we’re not too happy about accepting what we have, if we have difficulty accepting the way our life, career, or relationships are going, the people around us, even the way we are and the way we look; if we’re too worried and suspicious of what’s going to happen to us this new year, maybe the reason is that probably unconsciously, for us, God is a stranger, someone we do not know and therefore, someone we do not really trust—like that stranger in my childhood who appeared out of nowhere offering chewing gum. If we don’t want to accept our lives, the people around us, and especially ourselves, maybe this means that despite everything we say and do, God is no more than a stranger to us.
But then again, maybe that’s not the case with us. Maybe we’re the type of people who appreciate God only when He sends us things we like—getting promoted, victory at a basketball game, new friends, a new gadget. Maybe we feel religious and pray to God only when good things are happening to us, but when things aren’t going so great, we find ourselves liking and appreciating God less, praying to Him less. If this is the case, I think this means that although we know God and basically trust him, maybe He is really just like an acquaintance to us in our lives, not somebody whom we consider special. Maybe we haven’t reached a point where we have begun to regard God as a special friend. As in the case of other acquaintances, we allow His gifts to affect the way we look at Him: If our lives are going well, we’re crazy about Him. If things aren’t going too well, we think of Him less and pray to Him less. In this case, God is only some kind of acquaintance—like somebody we recognize and greet along the corridor, but that’s all.
Lord, as I begin this new year, I know You are inviting me to think of You not just as an acquaintance, and certainly not as a stranger. Rather, You want me to consider you my friend, somebody special, and somebody whom I really love and value. If that is the case, then it means that I should be ready to accept everything that will happen to me this year because I know that if everything that I possess and everything that I am truly come from God, then my life, my talents, my riches, even the people around me—all these must be really good and valuable.
Today, Lord, as we celebrate the feast of Your Epiphany, let me ask myself whether in my life You are a stranger, a mere acquaintance, or a special friend. One way of knowing is the way I look at the gifts that You have given me: my life, my possessions, and my self. May Your countless gifts to me be a manifestation of You, the Giver, and with deep gratitude and generosity, may I offer all these gifts back to You, Whose Name is Gift-Giver. AMEN.
If you feel up to it, you may want to share a Quick Prayer.
(image: Rembrandt’s “The Adoration of the Magi”)