I don’t remember where I first read the story, but it was probably in one of my mother’s old Ideals magazines. They had glossy covers, harder than standard paper magazine covers yet still obviously of the genre, sized like a magazine with the same slightly slippery, big pages inside. They were typically a mix of mediocre poetry, Kincaid-esque photography, and short stories originally designed to lift war-weary spirits.
I had no clue IDEALS still existed, but in fact it does. At Christmas and Easter, they still publish something that looks remarkably like what I held as a child, though the company has changed hands more often than 20-somethings change jobs. I haven’t read it since I was 8 or 10. Yet this one story stayed with me.
As a child, I read “The Gift of the Magi” in that magazine. I didn’t understand it. First off, I had no idea what Magi were. Was that the young couple’s last name? How did one pronounce it? I hadn’t been raised on nativity scenes and Christmas stories read every December. We had a manger set—I still have it displayed today with a simple shed shelter I found at a craft sale. No one ever told me who those figures were or what it meant.
It’s possible I had a passing knowledge of the supposed trio of wise men from The Little Drummer Boy, but that story called them kings, not that strange word that didn’t come easily to a little tongue. Magi? What even was that? And was it close to magic?
I was a practical child. A non-dramatic little girl. I preferred to have a few friends, stay far away from emotional frenzy, and make wise decisions about life. Even then, I observed before I acted. It may have looked (and still looks) like a split-second decision to act, but believe me, the undercurrent of always thinking didn’t disappoint me. Safe, smart choices made for a safe, smart life.
I had a decent number of examples of the opposite sort. So I knew to stay the course that naturally came to me anyway.
So the story of two very young people selling their dearest possessions so that they could buy one another Christmas presents did not compute to my logical mind.
Why would you ever sell your family heirloom pocket watch, Mr. James Dillingham Young? Don’t you know you can buy your wife a bigger Christmas present someday when you’re not young and poor? Can’t you just make her something pretty now? Haven’t you ever heard of Walmart, man?
And you, young woman. Okay, your hair will grow back. But seriously, you had to have other options for something small and special. Something Enough.
O Henry, the man who wrote “Gift of the Magi,” doesn’t appear to have lived as if he understood this story, either. Yet he wrote it, so maybe, like me as a little girl, he longed to understand it, wished for it to be real, more than really knew it to be. Such is, I suspect, the way most good stories are born.
“The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”
I thought I was wise as a child, with my careful calculations and safe choices. I’ve thought the same as an adult, prioritizing safety over risk, sensible over extravagant. The truth is, this is usually the case. Proverbs teaches the wisdom of patience, and the very definition of proverbs is that they are truisms most of the time.
“Better to be patient than powerful; better to have self-control than to conquer a city…A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.” Proverbs 16.32, 25.28
Most of the time, like Jim and Della, we will do far better to hold off on the crazy impulses and wait for our wiser muses to kick in. We will do better to rein in the immediate gratification and patiently sit, waiting for the greater rewards.
Yet sometimes, wisdom needs a Holy Spirit kick. Sometimes, wisdom is too wise for its own good. Sometimes, we need to do the very thing the rest of the world deems unwise indeed in order to live out the Kingdom God has given us in Christ.
Sometimes, our zeal to distance ourselves from risk and cling to safe choices makes us stagnant disciples, people who have observed too much and acted too little.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 13.44-46)
That sounds a lot like selling your hair or your watch to offer a loved one all you have. Only this time, the loved one is Jesus, and the stakes are so much greater.
No one, least of all Jesus, promises safety in this journey of learning to give like the Magi. Not even O Henry did so, however happily most of his stories ended.
As Della analyzes her lost locks and head of shameful tight curls, he rhapsodizes, “Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks. It is never easy to cover these marks, dear friends— never easy.”
No, sometimes the marks stay. Generous, risky giving can leave marks of personal hurt, financial loss, or emotional tenderness. Neither the author of my childhood story nor Jesus blanches at the thought.
Jesus’ marks of large-hearted giving were nail scars in the palms of his hands. They were still there to see and touch when he offered such to Thomas.
“In this world you will have trouble…” Live an abundant, crazy, generous life anyway. Cultivate wisdom, to be sure. Yet be willing to do the even wiser thing—give it all for what is worth infinitely more. Knowing Christ through our sacrifices.
“Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death,so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Philippians 3.8-11)
As a child, reading The Gift of the Magi, I didn’t understand extravagant giving, the kind that didn’t make sense, that offers our most important treasures for what appears to be little gain.
To be honest, I’m still not so sure I do. But I’m learning, slowly.