In his pretty little short story, The Gift of the Magi, master story-teller O. Henry tells a tale of giving “too much” at Christmas.
Jim and Della are a young married couple, very much in love; and they are also dirt poor. It is the day before Christmas, and Della is sobbing on the couch because she has no money with which to buy a present for her husband.
She looks in the mirror and realizes that she can cut her beautiful long hair, and sell her tresses down at Madame Sofronie’s hair goods shop.
And so she does, for twenty dollars. With her newly-raised funds, she runs to the jeweler, where she purchases a platinum watch chain for Jim’s gold watch.
Then she waits, excitedly, for Jim’s arrival back home.
When he opens the door to his beaming young wife in the evening, he stands transfixed in the threshold. He sees his wife’s short hair, beautifully coiffed with new curls -- but still so short, and he is speechless.
He brings out of his pocket the present that he has purchased for Della. She opens it, and bursts into tears.
Jim has given her a set of fancy hair combs that she has wanted for months, only now she has no hair for them.
Della gives Jim his present, holding out the watch chain.
Jim smiles, falling back on the couch. He explains to his wife that he had sold his watch to buy Della’s combs.
He soothes his wife and tells her that they will save their gifts. For later. For now, a little humble dinner, a gift of daily bread.
There may be some people, reading about Jim and Della, who say that they were foolish in accounting, that they spent too much, that everyone lost out in the exchange, that no one gained.
But the author, O. Henry, begs to differ. He, speaking as the narrator, closes the story by claiming that Della and Jim are the wisest of everyone who give gifts on Christmas Day -- because each one gave simply everything, and thus gave self away to the other (which is the definition of every true Gift -- and which is, by the world’s standards, always too, too much). They, too, must be the Magi.
Hence, the title and riddle of the story.
More puzzling than this American gem is an older narrative. In this deeper and brighter story, it seems that someone else paid too much for a present: this one wrapped at the First Christmas, lying under the shadow of a Tree … a Tree not so beautifully decorated as in our homes, but a Tree far, far more powerful … indeed, eternal in power to save.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.”
We adults have spent our whole life hearing these words, and we might have grown too accustomed to hearing their syllables on our ears.
But if we listen in silence, in the snowy evening of the winter stillness, and think with wonder upon each and every beautiful word, then we might respond, for the first time in a long time, that God has surely spent too much.
We should say, with the same not-so-pleasant surprise while opening a gift from our children or a poor relative, “But you shouldn’t have! You spent too much!” And we continue in our thoughts that we do not want to be in so much obligation … or rather, we think that we are not nearly so deserving to receive such gift that cost so much personal sacrifice.
Even so, every moment of Christ’s life is a further unwrapping of this Gift -- the Gift that exceeds all understanding. And at every such Gospel moment, there is the same human response: “You spent too much, there is no way we can repay.”
At the Wedding Feast in Cana, He brings back the new wine of joy to all the families and fellowships of the human race (if only we would turn off the electric noise).
At every healing, He sets His Creator-Hands back onto Adam’s flesh to renew the broken human body, to restore the shattered human mind.
At the sad house of Jairus, He calls back a little girl from the deathly vale into which no human should have ever gone, and He erases the horror of death once and for all in language and memory and re-names it, from now on, as only “sleep.”
And at the Cross, my friend, He finds you and me in the abyss and goes there. He came down to earth in the Manger, and could not find us in the stable, with the ox and the donkey. He searched for His lost lambs among the blind and the poor, the lame and the lepers: but we were not there.
So He descended into Hell, and there, with Adam, we were.
At the point of this darkest, loneliest, most desperate extremity of human existence … far, far down into the zero point of all bankruptcy and hopeless, un-payable debt, Jesus the Christmas Light of the cold shadow world, the luminous Gift that Exceeds Every Debt, said “Come unto Me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will will give you rest (Matthew 11.28) … Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people (Isaiah 40.1) … When I ascend on high, I will lead captivity captive, and give gifts to men” (Psalm 68.18).
And Jesus the One-and-Only Gift then and there, at the harrowing of Hell, revealed the shining glory, the uncreated Light of the Bethlehem Star. That Nativity Quasar destroyed, utterly, the shadowy leprous power of death.
St Symeon the New Theologian says, so much better: ““I see You, as the sun, I contemplate as a star, I consider as a lamp burning inside a vessel, and I carry You inside, a pearl.” [Hymn 38]
“I am,” says God the Word, “the Light of the World.”
By His divinity He healed the deathly sickness of our humanity: on the Cross, through the Tomb, down into the black hole of Hell, and then higher up into the soaring trajectories of Heaven forever.
He did not have to.
But He did so, in joyous freedom.
He spent too much at Christmas. Infinitely too much. What Personal sacrifice.
You might think that we are mixing holidays here. But you just cannot avoid thinking of the Cross at Christmas. The Cross does not ruin Christmas. It explains it.
“Merry Christmas,” Jesus says. “Open your present. It is Me.”
So you stand amazed when you open this gift. You protest: “But You spent too much. There is no way I can repay.”
There is no balancing accounts with God, you silly man (or woman). God is a very poor accountant: He has no interest in the bottom line. He cares nothing about saving money: the only saving He is interested in is the saving of souls. He is, after all, the Prodigal Father Who throws His money all around.
He has no need to balance things out: St Isaac the Syrian says that the sinfulness of all humanity is but a handful of sand, compared to the Ocean of God’s Love. There is no necessity ever felt by God. Ever. The Holy Trinity has no demands of justice or honor to satisfy. He only gives, and gives infinitely the present of all time.
What to do on this cold winter morning?
Just open the present (pun intended). Be happy today, give thanks, throw a mystical party. Open your heart to the Starshine of Christmas. Let the Infinite Gift of Jesus break softly your heart in the night, in the stillness of His quiet winter Light.
And, like Jim and Della, sell your watches and your tresses.
Be a Magi of the Gift -- the beautiful Gift of Peace that cost too, too much.