By Tim Sullivan


William Sydney Potter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. When he was about 20 years old, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he was employed as a bank teller. He moved to Houston in 1884 and he began writing a humorous weekly he called “The Rolling Stone.” When that publication failed, he was hired as a newspaper columnist for the Houston Post.

The next year, Potter was brought back to Austin on charges of embezzling money from the Austin bank. Fearing imprisonment, he fled to Honduras, and hid there for six months before finally surrendering to U.S. authorities. In 1897, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years in an Ohio penitentiary.

While in prison, Potter began writing short stories. He adopted a pen-name, an instant cure for his ills, providing anonymity as well as a fresh start. He called himself “O. Henry.”

Upon his release from prison, he moved to New York. In less than nine years, he had written and published over 250 stories. O. Henry was called “the master of the short story,” famous for his surprise endings. But O. Henry’s life was as full of twists and turns as the fiction he wrote. He died at the age of 39, a penniless alcoholic.

O. Henry is best remembered for “The Gift of the Magi,” a story that takes place on Christmas Eve in New York City at the dawn of the 20th Century. In this story, Jim and Della Young were a young couple struggling to make ends meet. When Della realized that she had no means to buy her husband a Christmas gift, she sacrificed her most beloved worldly possession — her luxurious knee-length hair — cutting it off and selling it to a wig maker so she could buy her husband a chain for his prized gold watch. When Jim came home that evening, he was aghast to see his wife’s shorn hair. It was not that her beauty had diminished in her husband’s eyes. But Jim had also gone shopping, or rather, like his wife, he went trading. He had sold his watch to buy his wife some tortoise shell combs for her hair! O. Henry concludes his story by saying,

“The magi, as you know, were wise men — wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents... And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

There are many people who assert along with O. Henry that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime began with the wise men. Whether or not this is true is uncertain. Most of our Christmas traditions are mired in controversy, most especially amongst Christians themselves. But I would hope that, even amongst Christians, we will allow that wise men from the East came bearing gifts to the Christ child. This is the record found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

11 And when they were come into the house, 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, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Most of what we propose to know about the “wise men from the east” is a matter of supposition and folklore. We sing Christmas carols about the “three kings of the Orient” without any real evidence that they were either kings or three. The only basis for such an proposal is that three costly gifts that were given, “gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” In the Middle Ages it was claimed that the bodies of the “three wise men” (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) had been found and entombed in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany.

Such “evidence” aside, neither the names nor the number of the wise men found its way into the Holy Scripture. There is something quite remarkable implied there, echoed in the words of Christ:

Matthew 6:3-4:
But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

God prefers to see his servants labor in obscurity and anonymity, void of the “self-congratulatory” spirit that mars so much Christian service. As Jesus said, “Every tree is known by his own fruit” (Lk. 6:44). Your work speaks for itself.

Proverbs 27:2:
Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.

Whether the “men from the east” were kings is not as important as the fact that they were wise. As a popular Christmas card says, “Wise men seek Him still.” These wise men did not come seeking recognition for themselves but to bring honor to their King.

They showed their adoration by the gifts they brought. They would not be guilty of presenting themselves before the King with empty hands. “They shall not appear before the LORD empty,” says Deuteronomy 16:16.

1 John 2:28:
And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.

The gifts presented by the wise men of the East were not given absentmindedly. Each gift was remarkably significant, given in recognition of a great truth concerning the promised Messiah.

The gift of gold was given in recognition of Christ’s right of succession to the throne of David.

Luke 1:32:
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

Of course, Jesus was not just a king. He is the King, the Emperor of all God’s creation, the “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing,” says Revelation 5:12. Offerings were not made to a king to alleviate his lack. The king’s wealth far exceeded that of his people. Offerings were given as a tribute of respect. We give because he is worthy of our finest gifts.

The gift of myrrh was given to the Christ child in recognition of his impending sacrifice. This bitter herb, often used in embalming, was a reminder of the reason Christ was sent to the earth, to pay the penalty for our sins through his death.

When the prophet Simeon blessed the young boy Jesus at the Temple, he also reminded Mary of the reason her son was born, saying, “A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:35). The grave reality of his mission never escaped the mind of Christ. You will recall how, soon after he had raised Lazarus from the dead, Christ proclaimed, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (Jn. 12:32). “This he said,” reads the next verse, “signifying what death he should die.” He gave himself for us.

Ephesians 5:2:
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.

Frankincense was given in recognition of the worship and devotion that is due his holy name. Our praises waft to heaven like the sweet fragrance of incense.

Psalm 141:2:
Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

We seek to praise him with our entire being.

Romans 12:1:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

Part of our worship is our sacrifices made unto him by our offerings and gifts of love.

Philippians 4:18:
But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God.

God showed us through the gift of his Son that true love demands sacrifice. We cannot honestly say we love the Lord if we only serve him when it is convenient. We cannot say we love the work of his Church if we only give what we feel we can spare. We should not present our offerings to the King of kings with the same reluctant attitude as when we hand over spare change to a beggar. We don’t give because he needs it. We give because we know we need him. We present our gifts to the Lord because it is the right thing to do.

Jeremiah 33:11b:
... bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD.

Most important, the gifts of the wise men remind us to whom our gift are directed. No matter who the immediate recipient may be, our gifts to God are tributes presented to his name and in his name.

Mark 9:41:
For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

In the story told by O. Henry, the monetary value of the gifts presented by Jim and Della pales in comparison with the selfless love with which they were offered. This is the essence of perfect love, the sacrifice of love that the Bible calls “charity.” This is the kind of giving you can never “afford.” This is the kind of giving that can truly be called “Christian.”



From the December 2005 issue of The Vine & Branches