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The grammar of star-gifts

The Epiphany of Jesus – Those who know how to give do not take up space, but free it. They do not take up time from reciprocity and only bring "great joy" with them.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 05/01/2020

The feast of the Epiphany of Jesus tells us many things, all of great importance. It also tells us about the nature of giving, what it means to honour and about the proximity between the act of giving and death

Giving is one of the highest forms of human freedom. Hence, it is often a tragic experience. The visit of the Magi, narrated in the Gospel of Matthew, contains many elements of the grammar of giving. Matthew calls those three sages magoi, an expression that probably indicated priests of Zoroastrianism. Wise men, astronomers and astrologers, who came from the east and from a mythical world of the past but still very present in biblical culture and therefore also to the evangelist. They were not shepherds, they were experts in stars and science. This presence of wisdom and science around the crib is beautiful, a necessary blessing in this time of crisis; how beautiful it is also to see men, males who are capable of giving gifts: Herod is a male, the three magi are males, then and now.

Scholars who came from the east, probably from Persia, today's Iran, on the most beautiful of pilgrimages. They did not worship the same God as the evangelist. Some would simply call them idolaters, too close for comfort to the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian magicians and soothsayers that the Bible fought against so intensely. Instead, Matthew, places the visit of these guests and friends who have come from afar with blessings to bring gifts, to honour the child. Believing in other gods is not enough to become an enemy of biblical faith. The first opponents of the prophets and the people of Israel were the false prophets, who believed and worshiped the same YHWH as they did, who knew the Law perfectly and quoted it from memory. The visit of the Magi then tells us that God remains true and unique even if each person calls him by a different name. We are not the masters of the name of God, which is always greater and more plural than our vain attempts to imprison him within our religion. And it reminds us, together with the Samaritan, another great "traveller" of the Gospels that he who lives nearby in our vicinity is not our only neighbour: the magi were the boy's neighbour despite being, for many reasons, distant.

Those men set out to the west, following "a star", to "worship" a child, who they knew to be "the king of the Jews" (Mt 2: 2).

Here are the first two elements of this special grammar of giving: there is a path and there is a star. A path means commitment and time, the fundamental ingredients of every true act of giving. We do not accept and do not like a gift that we know has been recycled precisely because there is no commitment or time involved. Gifts don't take long, we can make several in a few hours; giving is no different. There can be no giving without a journey, a material or spiritual journey. We get up and we go to find that person that we have decided to honour with our visit and our gift. Almost everything that we wanted to say to that person we say to them by going to visit them: it is the fact of our body in motion that conveys the most important things to them. The gift, the object that we can bring, is a sign, a sacrament that makes what we had already said with our visit, with our walking, explicit reinforcing it. The first gift of the Three Wise Men was getting on their journey. Other times travelling can be only spiritual, like when we want (and should) write the note that goes with our gift, and we travel back and forth in time in search of those words that can only be born if we allow them the time they need to blossom within our soul, while traveling internally in the company of those who we are about to honour with our gift.

Then there is the Star. When donating a gift, certainly in the case of the most important ones, one does not start without the appearance of a "star" – the sound of a voice, a sign, a convocation. We start walking because someone or something calls us on the inside - sometimes it can even be a cry. That's why each and every one of us is able to recognize those few gifts that we have received in life because someone followed a star for us. The first gift (of life) almost always comes like this, because two people saw and followed the other's star. What we are today depends on many things, but it depends above all on the star-gifts that we have received.

The Gospel then tells us that the Magi, once they had reached the child, «When they saw the star, they were overjoyed» (Matthew 2,10). Joy is the typical reciprocity or gift that we get back from these gifts, a special and very great kind of joy that we only come to know if and when we make star-gifts. They may seem like unilateral gifts on the outside, but this is not true, because this "great joy" is an essential form of reciprocity. Even greater than the one narrated by the Arab (apocryphal) Gospel of the childhood of Jesus, according to which « the Lady Mary took one of the swaddling-bands, and … gave it to them; and they received it from her with the greatest marks of honour».

In Matthew's account, the first encounter of the Magi in Jerusalem is with Herod. The troubled king collects information about this hypothetical new child-king, he has the Wise Men brought to him and says to them: «Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him» (Matthew 2,8). So that I too may go and worship him. On earth, the adoration of the Magi and that of Herod continue to coexist side by side. Visits made to children to celebrate life, other "visits" made to celebrate death. And earth will continue to live on as long as the visits of the Magi are greater in number than those of Herod.

The announcement of the Magi to Herod, unintentionally, causes the first death in the New Testament: the massacre of the innocent. The Magi are remembered for their gifts; but they are also remembered for the massacre by Herod. This immediately tells us something decisive, which runs through all the Gospels, Paul, and Christian humanism: the act of donating a gift borders on death. This closeness is expressed in many ways, and not all beautiful. There are gifts that produce death because they are poisonous (gift), because under that shimmering package there is only the will to control and a manifestation of strength and power. These are the deadly gifts of the mafia, of kings and pharaohs who use donations/ gifts to mark a distance, to tell us that they own both their gifts and us. But in the light brushing of death with the act of giving, in this proximity between dòro and thànatos, there are also other words present. Gift is ambivalent, because if it were not ambivalent it would not be one of the most beautiful and high words that we could think of and pronounce under the sun.

Those who know the good gift, the one that arises from our indispensable vocation for gratuity, know that this gift lapses upon wound and death because it is placed at the centre of our life and that of others, starting with the first gift and ending with the last, when gift and death in that "here I am" will become one word. A gift is born and operates on the border between two or more lives, this is why it has the ability to affect life, to be effective. It's like the words: create, change, mark, teach, hurt - what can hurt us more than a refused and trampled gift?

The Bible knows a lot about the ambivalence of gifts, and this is also why it speaks little of them, and when it talks about them (Isaiah) it almost always does so to warn us against poisonous donations / gifts without gratuitousness. But above all, it talks to us about them by beginning the tale of human history with the gift of Cain unwelcome by God-Elohim, a refused gift that produced the world's first fratricide-murder. Herod is the anti-gift, the new Cain, the one who does not know how to "worship" and does not know how to give. The Wise Men are like Abel, the gentle brother who knew how to make gifts, who set out on his way to the fields, and whose blood bathes the land of the Good News, and God continues to smell its scent.

The Magi bring "gold, frankincense and myrrh" as a gift (Matthew 2,11). To state royalty (gold), divinity (incense), and corporeality (myrrh). The grammar and syntax of the gift continues to unfold. In every encounter that arises from the gift, I tell you that you have the dignity of a king, that you are sacred as a god, and that you are a human being, and therefore your limits and your future death are not a curse and condemnation, but a task and fate. These are the accidents that only together make up the substance of the gift, which consists in honouring.

«On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him» (Matthew 2,11). Mary is also part of the gift of the Magi, a surprise and joy added to their joy which was already enormous. And in Mary we are able to see another biblical friend of the Magi again: the Queen of Sheba, who set out from afar, with many gifts, to know and honour the wisdom. The gift of the Magi is another of the Magnificats in the Gospels, and Mary's visit to Elizabeth is the episode that resembles it the most. Maria confidently welcomed the Magi into the house, brought them inside, recognizing them as good, kind guests, accepting their gift.

And finally, as in the case with Mary and Elizabeth, after donating theirs gifts the Magi also got on their long way home. This is the last note in the art of gift, which does not end with its acceptance, but with getting back on the road again. Those who know this art because they have learned it all their lives, know that "returning home" is the true masterpiece element of giving, because it spells chastity, an essential word in every gift, the twin sister of gratuity. He or she who knows how to give does not take up space, but frees it. He or she is discreet. They leave quickly, while knowing how to stay without haste, and then hurry back home again. They do not appropriate or take up time from reciprocity. But only take away that "greatest of joys".

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