When I was girl, one of my favorite parts of Christmas was unpacking the creche. My parents insisted that we put it up last of all the holiday decorations. The box holding the nativity scene spent the year in the back of a closet, its figurines swathed in yellowed pages of newspaper, waiting to be pulled out on Christmas Eve. We would exclaim with joy as we unwrapped sheep and donkeys and camels, shepherds and wise men, the angels, and, finally, the holy family — Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus.
Since I was the eldest, I always got to unwrap Mary, who was both my favorite figure and the most beautiful, all dressed in blue and pink. But I confess: The wise men secretly fascinated me. I did not know what to make of those mysterious kings from the East — their black and brown faces served as a compelling contrast to our white baby Jesus. They wore regal robes and carried exotic and expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for an infant born of peasant parents in a barn.
In all honesty, the story did not make sense even to a child. Why would these strangers do this? There was no way that Jesus and his family could ever repay the debt of gratitude they would incur by accepting such generous presents. They could not give anything in return. There would be no exchange of gifts.
What must have Mary and Joseph thought?
They were Jews, marginalized and poor, oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire. The whole reason they were in a barn in the first place is that authorities forced the young couple, wife heavily pregnant, to leave their home to enroll themselves in a regressive imperial tax scheme.
Mary and Joseph did not receive gifts from kings. They had probably never even seen a king. Indeed, all they knew was that kings took from poor people like them — their freedom, hope, dignity, livelihood, income and land.
The whole business of gifts from the Magi must have confused them and might have scared them. The New Testament says Mary “treasured” not the gifts but these confusing things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). No word of Joseph’s response, however. I wonder whether he might have wanted to give the loot back, for fear that there were strings attached.
The story of the three kings is not a pretty tale; it is a pretty radical — and even political — one. In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status.
When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations. Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy. In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude — in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe. Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.
But when the three kings brought gifts to Jesus, they turned gift-giving on its head. Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts — they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod or some rival ruler. And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached. Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.
This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement. What happened at the manger was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression. Rather, these gifts were the first fulfillment of Mary’s prophetic song: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble! He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
In the world birthed in that stable so long ago, the kings joyfully leave their gifts with the poor and go away empty-handed. No strings attached. No more quid pro quo. No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.
What wonder! What surprise! Obligation is gone, replaced by astonishment. Repayment is neither possible nor necessary.
Gifts are truly gifts, not instruments to discharge favors or reward only those who are deemed loyal enough. The rich have, indeed, come down from their thrones. The Christmas story might fill hearts with the surprise of tenderness, the ache of genuine gratitude and the passion for real justice. The baby and the wise men: a story of gifts and true gratefulness. Joy to the world!
Diana Butler Bass (dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of 10 books on faith and spirituality and a frequent contributor to Acts of Faith. Her next book, “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks,” releases in April from HarperOne. You can follow her on Twitter @dianabutlerbass or on Facebook (facebook.com/d.butler.bass).