off

The Gift Of The Maji

Daily Devotional for Wednesday, November 18, 2020 from Rev. Eric Douglass


In this set of meditations, we are going to look at the various characters in the Christmas stories of our Gospels. Today we continue our look at the wise men—the Magi—beginning with some background material.  
 
The Magi were astrologers. They believed that the stars were divine beings that inhabited the heavens. Such beings influenced human life at every level. One story talks about the stars helping an army in a particular war on earth. For this reason, astrology was serious business. This also explains why God expressly forbid astrology in Israel, for it implied that these ‘little gods’ were in control.
 
It had been a long journey through the desert. The Magi were exhausted. “Follow the star” we had been told. It sounded so simple. We had started with such high expectations, with such joy. We left our towns in Arabia at once, never thinking about the length of journey, or the coldness of the nights, or the absence of food. No baths! For weeks we had traveled on camels, sparing our feet from the hot desert sun.
 
That was when we came to our first Judean town. Jannes saw it first, letting out a whoop as we embraced each other in gladness. We the astrologers of the east. The scholars of the sky. We raced into town—as fast as speeding camels will let one go—heading straight for the central well…splashing water on our heads, washing away the filth of the long weeks, gurgling the clear water in joy.
 
Then the crowds came. Oh, we had expected a reception. We were the scholars from the east. Everyone prized our knowledge. Entire communities begged us to stay. But not here. The elders came to us with angry looks. I heard one snort “gentile.” Another whispered “heathen.”
 
“Gentlemen,” I proclaim in a wide, sweeping gesture. “We are Magi from the east. Astrologers to help where we can.” And then bowing low: “We are, ever, your servants.”
 
The man with the angry eyes spits at our feet: “Get out!”
 
Another: “We don’t serve your type here.”
 
A third: “How dare you contaminate our town with your filth.”
 
“But we are here to help. We follow the star of the messenger of God, of the child-king. We gladly share all of this with you.”
 
This only seems to enrage the crowd. Several pick up rocks, and another comes at us with a wooden rake. We back away slowly, pulling our camels into the desert, surprised at this response. Only when we are beyond the town’s limits does the crowd disperse. But their faces still bear the marks of anger and distrust.
 
From that point on, we avoid the cities. If we must enter, we keep to the outskirts, and even then are given dirty looks and angry stares. We are baffled at this treatment. How can a journey of such joy come to be plagued with such fear and dread? But the star is relentless in its journey, and we follow it as if it were the finger of God.
 
Skirting around cities, watering our camels at night, hiding in the desert by day…it is not the journey we had planned. We are called disgusting slurs. Our tunics, once brightly colored and sparkling, have become grimy. There is no place we are welcome to wash. Our faces, once filled with the best foods, have become thin and haggard. We are tormented by the populace, who regularly kick dirt at us and throw stones. We have come to look like beggars. We disgust ourselves. But the star is relentless in its course.
 
And then it stops. We are in a small town in the middle of nowhere. It is night, for that is the only time we travel. We steal up to the door, pausing at the sounds of people lest we are discovered. It is a small hovel made of mud bricks and barred windows. The smell is of animals and old hay. The plaster is cracked. The only sound is of a small child crying in the dark. We knock. Hurried footsteps. A crack in the door and the question of who wants entrance.
 
“We are here to worship the child.”
 
A woman appears in the doorway, opening the door wide. She looks at me, taking in my grimy clothes and my foreign accent and my strange headband. But instead of expressing disgust, she smiles: “The Lord be with you.” I step back, surprised at the welcome. I have endured anger and hate for so long. Stepping inside, I find myself among country shepherds. They are laughing and singing and dancing in the firelight. One grabs my hand and offers a coarse greeting in broken language. He smells of animals. His hands are calloused and rough. He pulls me into the firelight and sets me down in its warmth. And there, on a cold winter’s night with the wind howling across a landscape of hatred and distrust, I find acceptance. And I suddenly realize, I am home.
 
Later that night, we place our gifts before the child. They are received with kindness. But they are nothing compared to the gifts we received: community and love. These were the gifts that we should have brought. These were the offerings of the great ones in that house. These were the frankincense and myrrh of the soul. In every age, these are the gifts of the Magi.
 
On the way back home, the world didn’t seem quite so dark.


Our Lord:
 
When our neighbor fails to look like us,
or think like us, or speak like us,
we rush to exclude.
Building walls, brick by brick,
we create division and distrust.
 
Yet you came to us when we were strangers,
and tore down the dividing wall
that separated us from you.
Till a path, unobstructed and clean,
allowed us to come home.
 
The work of Christmas
is not found in frankincense or myrrh.
It is the tearing down of all dividing walls
till community, compassion, and caring
is all that remains to be seen.
 
Imagine the Kingdom of God.
 
Amen.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, though which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.