Community Comment:

Magi started tradition of gift-giving

and saved immortal life

Each year during the Christmas season, millions the world over find themselves repeating the tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus through the giving of gifts.

But where did this tradition of gift-giving come from? Who were these Wise Men who set into motion this annual tidal wave of personal generosity?

What of the world in which this beloved child was born, and what became of the gifts the Magi presented tohim more than 2,000 years ago?

We know from the exquisite Gospel story recorded in Matthew 2 that Jesus was born during the waning years of Herod the Great, a cunning Edomite warrior from the desert region south of Judaea.

A descendant of Idumaenan nomads of the region, Herod ruled through guile and treachery. Although his mother was of Arab descent, he was declared "King of the Jews" by Caesar August 40 years prior to the birth of Christ.

During his reign, Herod was chronically plagued by insecurity due to his ethnic origin (he was hated by the Jews of Judaea). He slaughtered several members of his immediate family, including one of his 10 wives, two sons and a brother-in-law.

Upon hearing rumors that a male child of the Jewish house of David had been born in the city of Bethlehem, about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, Herod summoned a number of Magi, or wise men as they were called in the Scriptures, to report to him what they knew of this new development.

If this child were a legitimate heir to the Jewish throne, it would be a major threat to his tenuous political control over this region of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Biblical scholars are divided as to precisely from where the Wise Men came. Some argue that they were Persians, of a sect of Zoroastrian astrologers, who inhabited desert regions of present-day Iran to the East and north of the Persian Gulf.

Others suggest they may have been from the Kingdom of Sheba, the region of present-day Yemen, in that Isaiah 60:6 predictedC "The multitudes of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord."

Similar gifts were presented to the Hebrew King Solomon when he was visited by the Queen of Sheba nine centuries before.

Still others argue the Magi hailed from Babylon, the ancestral home of the Jews in captivity, where many had stayed on since the Exile six centuries before.

Babylon existed in the region of the Tigress and Euphrates River valleys, the location of modern-day Iraq.

Legends handed down in the Western tradition over the centuries have assigned the names and ages of the three Magi - Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthazar - and artistic representations show them to be of different races and ages, demonstrating that Christ came for the salvation of all mankind.

After being summoned to speak with Herod and instructed to gather intelligence about events and return with what they had learned, these learned men of reason followed the star of Bethlehem in the eastern sky, which guided them to a house.

There "they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh," the treasures fit for an ancient king.

While all of this may ring familiar with many of us, the Scriptures go on to record that the Magi were then instructed by God in a dream to ignore Herod's decree and left the country without returning to his court.

Similarly, Joseph, the young child's father, was also alerted in a dream to gather his family and seek asylum in Egypt for a time to avoid a looming danger.

It is thought that the fortune brought to the Christ child by the Magi may have been used to hire an entourage to escort the infant and his family into the region of the Sinai peninsula.

Meanwhile, Herod instructed his centurions to slaughter all the infant Jewish boys of Judaea in an effort to kill this heir-apparent to the Jewish crown.

So, as we gather this year to exchange our gifts of affection with friends and loved ones, we should pause and remember these immortal gifts of the Wise Men brought to an obscure infant in a faraway village so many years ago.

They were the gifts that saved an immortal human life that changed the world forever.