Epiphany: Is there really no such thing as a free gift?

The Magi by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915

If you understand the expression “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” congratulations! You have already mastered a classic of modern French deconstruction philosophy, Jacques Derrida’s essay on gift giving, Given Time. If understanding deconstruction has not been on your bucket list, you only need to know that Derrida denies the possibility of giving a gift for the same reason that we say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Because, Derrida says, no gift is ever free. It is always part of an exchange, a complex balance between what we consider to be owed to each other. Derrida says that a gift is never truly a gift, not something freely given, because the giver always wants something in return, just like the person inviting you to lunch.  

The magi from the East bring the Christ Child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. If you ask the exegetical question “What do these gifts symbolize?” you get something like this: Gold symbolizes the child’s kingly status; frankincense, his divine nature; and myrrh, his sacrificial death.

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Why are the magi giving gifts in the first place?

But having mastered a seminal theme in deconstruction philosophy, let us ask a more basic question. Why are the magi giving gifts in the first place? To some extent, Matthew’s Gospel has already explained it. The magi arrive in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (2:2). The magi bring gifts to the Christ Child for the same reason that you gave your boss something for Christmas: if not to curry favor, then at least to be in “good standing.” It is Derrida all over again.

Maybe. Or maybe a deeper meaning of the gifts lies in the word we use to name the feast that celebrates this Gospel scene: Epiphany. Each year, preachers remind us that the word means “the shining forth.” This is the day, they say, in which Jesus was revealed to the nations in the persons of the foreigners from the East. He shines forth as the newborn Christ.

But maybe “shining forth” also explains what the magi are doing—and on a deeper level than Derrida. In giving gifts, they are expressing themselves. They are doing something external to say something about themselves. This is a deeply human need, indeed a fundamental fact about our humanity: We must shine forth. The only way that we humans can share what lies within us is by showing it.

Epiphany: Each year, preachers remind us that the word means “the shining forth.”

Perhaps a contrast is helpful. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the angels know intuitively, meaning that once they decide to know, they do not have to observe or to speak. They are like Mr. Spock, doing a Vulcan mind-meld. Their interiority is immediately given to each other.

We are not angels or Vulcans. We can only share life with others by “shining forth,” by expressing ourselves. Think of all that entails. We share thoughts and emotions—our innards—by speaking or not speaking, by smiling or frowning, by touching or not touching. Indeed, our very location at any given moment is an act of self-expression. It bespeaks what and who matters to us.

Shining forth, expressing ourselves, is a fundamental condition of our humanity. So much so that it is not unreasonable to ask if there is anything within us that is not ordered toward external expression. We might, at a given moment, be striving mightily not to kiss or to kick someone, but it is the very ability to entertain either of those alternatives that tells us how we feel.

How do I show that I have encountered Christ without seeking out the communion that we call the church?

St. Matthew’s magi do not speak to Christ or to his parents, but we know that he matters to them. First, because they have brought themselves to him, and with no little effort. And, regardless of what they bring, the fact that they come bearing gifts says that they want to enter into a relationship with this child.

What are some takeaways from understanding ourselves, like the magi, as those who must shine forth? St. James says that faith without works is dead. More foundational than the Christian debate about which comes first, faith or good works, is this question: Can faith be unexpressed? How do I show that I have encountered Christ and want to give myself to him without seeking out the communion that we call the church? How can I claim to understand Christ’s mission and still do nothing to improve this world?

If your Christ is only a notion, then—great—you have complete control over him, just as you do any of your notions. But if your Christ is a person, then you must relate to him as all humans do: by shining forth, by choosing to be where he is, by listening to him and by speaking to him, by encountering him with your senses. This is what we call liturgy. And then by serving him in others. This is what we call mission.

The Gospel tells us to imitate the magi, to let our own lights shine forth because a light that does not shine is no light.

Christ was never just a notion. He was a person, and he has chosen to remain a person, even after his death and resurrection. He has chosen to remain a person, one who shines forth to us in the community, which we call the church. And that is where we shine back at him.

If to give a gift is to give something unconditionally, then Derrida says that there is no such thing. Gift giving is always an exchange. But here is an exception that may yet prove the rule. We believe that God created the world, which is another way of saying that the world comes from someone who freely gave it and then just as freely withdrew. It is entirely possible to enjoy our world without any consideration of the giver, which makes the world itself the only true (unconditional) gift.

But once the giver “shines forth,” everything changes. Then we know that the gift is an act of self-expression, which means that there is someone who created us and our world to share life with us. Then to receive the gift is to enter into a relationship. So we must decide carefully what it is that we want, and how it is that we will respond.

St. Matthew’s magi encapsulate the Gospel message. Christ has shown forth. For them, God is no longer a notion. Not to shine back is to reject a person, indeed the most unique of persons, the one who makes possible our own personhood. The Gospel tells us to imitate the magi, to let our own lights shine forth because a light that does not shine is no light.

Readings:  Isaiah 60:1-6  Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6  Matthew 2:1-12

 

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Jeanne Devine
9 months 2 weeks ago

Great article. But please, oh please, don't ever misuse "the exception that proves the rule" again. "Prove" means "put to the test". It does not, in the proverb, mean "show to be true". Exceptions do not show the premise to be true; they put it to the test. Exceptions put the rule to the test; sometimes the rule survives, sometimes it doesn't.

Leo Sprietsma
9 months 2 weeks ago

I suppose Matthew's Magi story will always provide us with 'lessons'.

But the first 'lesson' ought to be that – as far as actual 'history' goes – Luke likely had it right.
Like good Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised and named a week after his birth, and then went home to Nazareth. – with a stop-over in the Jerusalem Temple for the Purification of Mary and the dedication of their 'first-born male' child to God.

Matthew was writing 'Midrash". He re-tells the stories about gifts and treasures and kings paying homage from Isaiah and the Psalms. If any 'actually' came to Bethlehem looking for 'the newborn king' – Jesus and Mary and Joseph were long gone back to Nazareth.

Mary and Joseph were new parents. They had a kid to raise. They had to get back to work.

Either Luke has the actual happenings right; or Matthew does. But not both of them. They contradict each other.

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