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Hallo again to all.

Modern celebrations of Christmas Day, even proper religious ones, are much about gifts. The weeks preceding 25 December are a time of intense commerce familiar to all of us. We fill the coffers of merchants with such eagerness, and distribute so much to our families and friends in the way of presents, that a thoughtful outside observer would be correct to ask just where in our religious tradition all of this comes from.

To the anthropologist, modern Christmas throughout the world has quite a lot in common with the Potlatch ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest. This indigenous American tradition of feasting creates lasting relationships of reciprocity; provides opportunities for the display and redistribution of wealth; and brings together persons of different ages, sexes, places, ranks, and responsibilities in the giving and receiving of gifts. In a curious irony, US and Canadian governments forbade First Nations peoples from practising the Potlatch precisely when the Christmas celebrations of the dominant Christian cultures of those countries came to resemble more and more the intentional lavishness of those coastal tribes.

The thoughtful anthropologist would search in vain in our scriptures for an indication of why we give gifts—as we do—on Christmas day in the morning. It's not there; there are angels, and parents, and a baby, and his clothes, and the cratch, but none of the characteristic gift-giving.

The Magi of the CatacombFor the presents, we need to wait with the Infant King until today, the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The event is depicted in one of the oldest Christian frescoes from the Catacomb of Priscilla, and it was prophesied in words most memorable to us as Coverdale tells them:

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall give presents; the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts.

All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service.

It is today—twelve days after many have ended their Christmas—that the world begins to understand the excellence of Bethlehem, with the sacred gifts of mystic meaning given there to the Christchild. His receipt of them transforms them into more than they can be by simple virtue of their chemical properties. Every Sunday school student knows what they come to mean:

Gold (Au, atomic number 79) the King of kings proclaimeth

Frankincense (Olibanum Boswellia sacra) doth God disclose

Myrrh (the resin of Commiphora myrrha) his sepulcher foreshows

In other words, they're a kind of ancient astrological object-lesson about the Good News of the Incarnation.

It is easy for the majority of English-speaking Christians—for whom the holyday means, if it means anything, a happy chance to sing some excellent (mostly Victorian) hymns—to stop at the recital of a pleasant story that rounds out just one of the Infancy narratives. Unless we are particularly fortunate in our choice of friends, we probably have not kept a Twelfth Night celebration with the mirth to which our ancestors were accustomed. Unless Epiphany falls on a Sunday, or our home church has a particularly rich liturgical life, we may not even have an opportunity to celebrate it with the barest of ecclesiastical solemnity.

As is so often the case, the Church's liturgical year provides a much richer way of understanding this time than we allow ourselves. If we look just past the verses in the psalm about the kings of Tarshish, we see that their presentation of gifts is a true announcing of the kingdom of heaven:

For he shall deliver the poor when he crieth, the needy also, and him that hath no helper. He shall be favourable to the simple and needy, and shall preserve the souls of the poor. He shall deliver their souls from falsehood and wrong; and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

He shall live, and unto him shall be given of the gold of Arabia; prayer shall be made ever unto him, and daily shall he be praised.

With their familiar gifts, the three kings proclaim the reign of God on earth, and the beginning of that reign in the hearts and lives of all of us. By offering things they have, they receive and partake in more than they could ask or desire. This transfiguration of all that is common in the courtly life of the ancient Mediterranean is indeed Magi-cal. But it is also a model and a call to us to be ourselves Magical in the offering of our own gifts for their hallowing by the Infant Lord. When we do so, we proclaim his birth among us, and the world sees and hears afresh the good news sung by angels and a crying baby long ago in Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas! Happy Epiphany! Be Magical.

See you next week.

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6 January 2013

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