With what gifts?

by Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

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Eight centuries before the Magi from the east came bearing gifts to present to Jesus, Micah asked, "With what shall I come before the Lord and bow before God most high? Shall I come with holocausts, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my crime?" (Micah 6:6-7). The prophet gave voice to the desperation of his people, who were overwhelmed by their own sinfulness and shame.

CEL-Jan032016.jpgToday, we ponder Trito-Isaiah's vision of the nations pressing toward Jerusalem, laden with gifts to offer to God, and the narrative of the Magi traveling from afar to offer gifts to Jesus. With these Scriptures in mind, we might be prompted to ask ourselves Micah's question.

The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

As we celebrate the appearance (or epiphany, or revelation) of God, in Jesus, to all the peoples of the Earth, how might we express our gratitude for such a gift? What gifts have we to offer to God, the giver of all good gifts?

God has given us all we are and have. Anything we may present is merely an acknowledgement of who God is and who we are before God. In that spirit, the nations streaming toward Jerusalem brought gold and frankincense (Isaiah). These gifts were to acknowledge the presence of the one God in Jerusalem and the desire of the nations to join Israel in offering their homage.

What Isaiah envisioned, Matthew and the author of the letter to the Ephesians saw as fulfilled in Jesus. Moreover, the ancient epistolary author understood that it was his mission ("stewardship of God's grace") to make known, to promote and to foster the unity of all peoples in Jesus.

As for the Magi, their gifts and their homage were representative of all the gentile world, who were and are, by God's plan, intended to share equally in the salvific gifts of God.

Given God's plan, perhaps the best gift we might offer is our daily affirmation of that plan as well as our continued commitment to realizing that plan in our lives, in our world.

Today, we no longer use the term "gentile" to refer to others, but we do tend to make a distinction about certain people and groups among us. That distinction sometimes leads to disrespect, misunderstanding, prejudice and even violence.

Lest we doubt that we ourselves harbor such feelings toward others, we need only substitute any of the following for the peoples and nations referenced by Trito-Isaiah: What if the prophet had written, "All from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico and Honduras will come ... dromedaries from Russia and Sudan will come. Muslims and Jews, immigrants and refugees, the poverty-stricken and the unemployed, the sick, the hungry and the homeless ... all will come ..."?

Will we offer them the same welcome that each could receive from God? Will we reach out in love? Will we have mercy?

On Dec. 8, Pope Francis declared the beginning of a Holy Year of Mercy, at which time he opened a Holy Door, a door of mercy, that will remain open for the duration of the year. Those who pass through that door will experience the love of God, who consoles, pardons and instills hope.

Francis expressed his intent that church doors be similarly opened throughout the world so that all of humankind, without exception, may know what he has called the "visceral" love and mercy of God.

"The mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child," Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus, the bull announcing the Year of Mercy.

This love has been made visible and tangible in Jesus' entire life. Every word, every work of Jesus offered a lesson in mercy. Through his parables, Jesus revealed the nature of God, who never gives up until the wrong has been forgiven and overcome with compassion and mercy. Never is anyone lost to God because, as the psalmist reminds us, "God's mercy endures forever."

Before he went to his death on the cross, Jesus prayed Psalm 136, the Great Hallel, a recitation of salvation history with every verse, and every great act of God for humankind punctuated by God's forever mercy. With these same words on our lips, we enter into this new year of open doors, open hearts, open arms and mercy for all without distinction and without limit.

With what gift shall I come before the Lord? Do you recall the response Micah received so many centuries ago? "You have been told, O mortal, what is good ... do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

And so we shall, for the mercy of our God is made manifest among us in Jesus and endures forever.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 18-31, 2015 print issue under the headline: With what gifts?.

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