The three kings, or wise men, who visited the infant Jesus are usually included in Christmas Nativity scenes, right along with angels and shepherds, and “We Three Kings” is popularly sung along with other Christmas favorites.
The evidence suggests, though, that it was quite some time after the Christ child’s birth that they came. The historic church calendar took note of this, placing their arrival not in the Christmas season but immediately after – in Epiphany, which begins each Jan. 6. Their arrival after following the star in the East from distant lands symbolized the revelation of “the light to enlighten the Gentiles,” that Jesus was the world’s, not just Israel’s.
Even in their recognition of the uniqueness of Jesus, and their will to travel a great distance to pay homage to him, the Christian writer Frederick Buechner sees in the wise men’s actions the foolishness of the wise.
Here’s Buechner’s take, from his daily devotional book, “Listening to Your Life”:
“The gifts (they) brought to the manger in Bethlehem cost them plenty but seem hardly appropriate to the occasion. Maybe they were all they could think of for the child who had everything. In any case, they set them down on the straw – the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh – worshipped briefly, and then returned to the East where they had come from.
“It gives you pause to consider how, for all their great wisdom, they overlooked the one gift that the child would have been genuinely pleased to have someday, and that was the gift of themselves and their love.”
It’s a challenge Christians have faced for millennia. God in Christ calls for nothing more, and nothing less, than complete surrender of the self to the enveloping divine presence. Yet we sometimes think we can get by with gestures of giving – of time, talent and treasure, as the saying goes – without fully committing our total selves.
There’s nothing wrong with the gifts we give. Often they are given at considerable sacrifice.
But they are most meaningful when they grow out of the greater gift of ourselves.