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Gift of the Magi: Being Present

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Holiday relief was mine when my friend, "Annie," wrote:

"Let's break the chain of giving gifts for Christmas. I really think spending time together is the best gift we have."

I'll admit that shopping does weigh me down like a clanking Jacob-Marley set of chains. She's right.

There's an up side to a bad economy during the holidays: getting back to basics by sharing time and creating memories with family and friends.

Annie's email was bold. It's a mark of intimacy when a friend can say honestly, "I'm tired of buying gifts. I'll stop if you stop."

Truly, I'm tired, too, of receiving bath salts, picture frames and tiny books from well-meaning friends.

And vice versa. I, too, fall prey to obligation, guilt, or the fear of appearing cheap or thoughtless. And yet none of that is assuaged when I offer up potpourri. The cultural pressure to buy is deeply ingrained.

Hear the seasonal slogan, "It is better to give than to receive" - typically unfurled banner-style in a shopping mall near you.

It equates with overflowing Santa packs and jumbo boxes under the Christmas tree. Don't be stingy. Spend! Spend! Spend!

But the phrase comes from the Bible in Acts: 20:35, where Paul said, "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

Helping the weak was the original concept. Share a cup of tea with someone lonely. A visit is relished by the sick. Conversation over a brisk walk brings comfort. An unexpected hour between friends is invigorating.

Often, this time of year brings to mind strangers in want.

But our lives are filled with relatives who are like strangers to us, or nice neighbors we barely know. If only we had a little more time.

But who can spare an hour during the frenzy of stockpiling presents?

As a child I asked my mother why we got gifts at Christmas. "Because it's Jesus' birthday, so we give each other presents," she said, adding that The Three Wise Men brought special things to the infant king.

Were the gifts of the Magi just a precursor for today's Secret Santa?

Digging deeper, I discovered the Magi were members of a priestly caste who applied astronomy and a study of prophecies in their work as "kingmakers." Melchior, Balthazar and Casper's gifts were more than birthday tribute.

They were prophetic gifts.

Gold represented Christ's earthly kingship, the frankincense signified his holy priesthood. Myrrh was symbolic of Christ's future suffering as it was a rare oil used for anointing and embalming. The Wise Men offered them in recognition of Jesus as God.

When such gifts are interpreted as a nod to the divine, then none of us should be getting anything. But in the secular sense, a gift exchange is symbolic, a gesture that says, "You're special."

But the spiritual language of "love," "care," and "giving" is buried under the babble of "discounts," "bargains," and the driving whip of "20 more shopping days to go."

How many coffees, walks, phone calls and letters with others could be shared in lieu of hours spent trolling the mall?

In the Nativity story, The Magi's gift of time often is overlooked. It is believed their journey "from the East" (most likely from ancient Persia as believed by scholars) would have taken about two years.

That's 24 months of hardship, wandering through the desert and traveling through crazy weather patterns to "follow the star" so they might behold with their own eyes the promised one.

A commitment that required big-time calendar clearing.

In comparison, a dinner with old pals is priceless and easier to arrange. Time is the most precious thing we own.

Perhaps the lesson of giving is not about the gift exchange, but the all-important call to be present.

This article originally appeared inThe Patriot Ledger on 11/29/2008.

Suzette Standring is the award-winning author of The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists.

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