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The December holidays find symbolic substance with the telling of stories. Indeed, both Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations are based on stories – each being ones that most scholars believe are myth. Even so, we still use contemporary stories to add greater meaning to the ideals behind the original holiday stories. I’ve used more modern stories in my messages over past Decembers – using ones like A Christmas Story, The Grinch that Stole Christmas or the Peanuts Christmas TV show. I plan to do the same this year using different stories each Sunday to add dimension and, I hope, spiritual reflections to our holiday season.
The “Gift of the Magi” is an enduring and famous short story written in 1906 by O. Henry, a pseudonym for William Sydney Porter who was a popular author of his time. The story is set in a large city. Della and Jim are young, they live in a modest apartment and have only two possessions which are prized by both. Della has long, luxuriant hair which is a feature that grants her great beauty. Jim owns a prized gold pocket watch that once belonged to his grandfather.
On Christmas Eve, Della tearfully contemplates the fact that she does not yet have a gift for Jim. She had tirelessly saved a total of $1.87 to spend on a gift – a small sum even in that time period. She decides to head to a local beauty shop where she sells her long hair – likely to be used in making a wig. She then goes out and finds the perfect gift for Jim – a $21 gold pocket watch chain. She rushes home to prepare Christmas Eve dinner and excitedly wait for her husband.
Della is sitting at her kitchen table as Jim arrives home. He is immediately stunned at the sight of Della. His reaction causes Della concern as she had moments earlier prayed that Jim would still find her attractive. She admits she cut her hair and sold it in order to buy him a Christmas gift. Jim then ruefully gives Della his gift which is an expensive set of hair combs – no longer useful but for which she is overjoyed as she had long wanted them. Della then shows Jim the pocket watch chain she had bought him with money from selling her hair. It is then that Jim explains he had sold his watch to buy her the expensive hair accessories. The story ends on a poignant note – each had sacrificed the one material thing in the world they held dear in order to express love to the other. O. Henry concludes by invoking the original Christmas story of the three wise men, the Magi, who brought expensive gifts to the baby Jesus – gifts rooted not in their value but in worship – much like what Della and Jim offered to one another.
While themes from the story are beautiful and obvious – those of deep affection and sacrifice, there is also an underlying truth about giving that O. Henry conveyed. When we give to another, it is often not the material item, the time or the money that matters most. What we do when we give to a person or organization is to make a statement. The gift is merely a symbol of a deeper motivation, a deeper thought, a deeper emotion. Similar to many other occasions in life, our deeds say volumes more than do our words or, in this case, a material gift item.
As in many areas of life, Jesus taught certain ethics that often ring universally true. We need not consider him divine in order to still appreciate his wisdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus warns both his followers and his enemies to be true to themselves. Be honest with your heart and don’t be hypocrites, he warned. Search and seek after the real nature of God in order to be a version of the same. Practice spiritual attributes that ring true to all people. If you wish to be devoutly religious, he taught, do so in private to preserve your spiritual humility. If you wish to give to a church, charity or person in need, do so anonymously to preserve the kindness of your motivation. If you endeavor to sit in judgment over someone, he said, examine yourself first and seek to correct your own inadequacies. And, most importantly of all, if you want to practice genuine spirituality, then go out and serve the least of humanity – the poor, oppressed, hungry and sick. These are the kinds of Jesus ethics that made him not the Christ Son of God but a great human guide who pointed to universal values that can be used to describe the divine, or simply the power of love.
Illustrating that fact, the gospels describe Jesus as coming across a tax-collector named Matthew, sitting at table set up at a crossroads – the better to encounter as many taxpayers as possible. Tax collectors of the time were Jews hired by the Romans to enforce and collect money owed to the empire. As payment for their collection services, they could charge over and above the mandated tax. As Jewish employees of Rome, they were seen by other Jews as greedy traitors. Tax collectors were hated and considered to be profoundly evil since no devout Jew would associate with, or work for, pagans.
For some reason, tax collector Matthew and Jewish rabbi Jesus hit it off. Matthew may have been struck by the power of Jesus’ outreach to him and to his teachings to serve others and not just himself. He decided to join Jesus and his band of followers. Soon after, he told other tax collectors about this amazing man named Jesus. A dinner party was soon held where Jesus mixed in the company of despised tax collectors.
As always with human nature, judgmental tongues began to wag about the notorious dinner parties Jesus attended. He was accused by self-righteous Jews, the Pharisees, that he must be a sinner too since he liked to hang out with all kinds of bad people – prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors and drunkards. How could he claim to be a spiritual teacher, how could he claim to be a rabbi when he did not act like a proper Jew?
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was perfect. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea when he tells the Pharisees to learn what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means. He effectively silenced these religious Jews, who would intimately know the book of Hosea, by reminding them of the true nature of God. God does not care about receiving things out of obligation. She desires that humans instead understand genuine spirituality – to love, serve, and give from an honest and compassionate heart.
A sacrifice, for practicing Jews of the time, was a religious obligation – something one must do in order to be considered a believer. Animals were sacrificed as a way to give away wealth in a show of worship and to atone for sins. Much like many routine and repetitive religious practices in any church even today, sacrifices became little more for most Jews than a box to check if one wanted to be pious. The real desire of God, Jesus taught, is not to receive ritual gifts designed to show devotion. The goal is for humans to grow and change their hearts by acting more spiritual – to show compassion and love, mercy over sacrifice. By dining with and extending friendship to tax collectors, Jesus was modeling true spirituality instead of hypocritical judgement and ritual box checking. He did not go to the Temple and openly display his piety by giving to God obligatory animal sacrifices. Instead, he gave away compassion to people inwardly wounded by their greed. This kind of love, when given to so-called sinners, is a gift of mercy. It is a god-like gift. No judgement. No condemnation. “Come, follow me, have dinner with me. Learn a better way to live by serving others.”
Ultimately, Jesus implied that the Pharisee’s hypocritical judgements spoke the truth about their spirituality more than did their obligatory sacrifices and prayers. With their self-righteous attitudes and arrogant displays of public piety, the Pharisees showed themselves to be falsely spiritual people. Their actions displayed the true motivations of their hearts – to merely appear devout, to boost their egos, to go through the motions of religiosity without any heart or soul. Jesus, on the other hand, modeled loving spirituality. He didn’t judge. He simply showed people how they could be better.
The very same lessons are implicit in O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”. They are lessons we might heed this holiday season in our own gift giving to friends and family. They are lessons we might heed in our pledges to the Gathering or to any other organization. What kind of message are we sending with our holiday gifts? What kind of message do we want to send? Is it one merely of obligation and duty? Is it one of repayment for past kindnesses? Is it a message of appreciation? Is it one of love? Is it a statement to endorse the ideals, ethics and values of another? No matter what or how we give, we are quietly but emphatically sending a message.
I assert that our gifts can and should be spiritual statements. I repeat, they should be spiritual statements – as opposed to obligations or rituals we feel compelled to offer. Gifts can reflect not only our thinking toward another, but also our inner values like love, compassion and sincerity. If we seek to understand ourselves, if we seek to plumb the depths of our honest motivations in how and what we do or do not give, we will find the true spiritual feelings we want to express. That kind of inward search strives to eliminate negative attitudes like arrogance, anger or jealousy – the kinds of motivations Pharisees had. Might we find the humility of Jesus to love someone who seemingly might not deserve it – a modern day outcast like a tax collector? In giving to people we cherish in our lives, might we find the kind of pure love of Della and Jim – a love that is greater then the sum of our worldly possessions? If we do that, might our gifts to those we love be somehow different? Perhaps they would be less lavish in their financial cost and, instead, more thoughtful and meaning filled.
To the Gathering and other organizations we support, might our gifts of time, talent and treasure be measured not just by our generosity, but by ethical beliefs we hold dear? We may not like all of its actions, but we can acknowledge with our gifts that it stands with us in what we value, that it is a place into which we are adopted as people who both love and are loved, that it is an organization that gives us meaning in our lives. Might our spiritual sacrifices to this Temple we call the Gathering be motivated by the good that is in each of our hearts – a desire to make a difference, to further the work of a worthy organization, to symbolically express, through our giving, the ideals we each have – service to others, open celebration of all people, a shared quest for enlightenment?
Might our Sunday mornings be gifts of time to ourselves and to each other – motivated by the inner yearning to touch the transcendent, to experience moments of heightened awareness, to connect with people we care about? Might our meditations and prayers be gifts of sincere caring, words of hope and appreciation we send out into the ether of universal consciousness? I ask us each to reflect on the the motivations of what we give in time, money and spirituality here and elsewhere – do they honestly reflect what our hearts and souls believe?
The “Gift of the Magi”, as a holiday story, strikes a chord in many people because it shows us what giving can look like. Della and Jim’s gifts were materially useless and yet spiritually profound. In their worthlessness, the combs and gold chain were transformed into talismans of the giver’s hearts – items to be cherished not for their utility but for what they represent. Jesus likewise taught what giving can and should be – spiritual expressions showing mercy, kindness, humility and love. To find those wellsprings of spiritual goodness in ourselves, we must examine our inner motivations honestly to eliminate negative thinking. In giving to loved ones, to friends, to the Gathering this holiday season, let us find the spiritual center from which all our words and deeds flow.
I wish all of us a spiritual, and peace filled holiday season…