Empty Hands

Empty Hands

Epiphany. Fr Timothy Radcliffe preaches on the gifts the wise men gave … and received.

The magi gave the child Jesus ‘gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’ Why did they bring him gifts? These would not have been useful for Mary’s child. What would they have done with them?

The point of course is not that Jesus’s family needed these presents, though presumably gold always comes in handy! These gifts were not in recognition of what he wanted but of who he was. The gold was the recognition of his kingship, the frankincense of his priesthood and the myrrh of the death that he would die.

So the magi gave him gifts in honour of the gift that he was to them, and is to us. These gifts show not that the child Jesus was needy but that we are, who long for this priestly king who gave his life for us. The magi go to seek him with their bags full of precious things, but more importantly they depart with their hands empty, and thus able to receive the gift of all that Jesus is.

Contrast this with how Herod sees the child, as a threat to what he possesses, to his kingship and riches. His hands are too full to receive the gift that he too is offered in Christ. If we are to receive the gifts of this Epiphany, then we must empty our hands too.

Andreas English is a German religious journalist who had been deeply critical of Pope John Paul II. He accompanied the Pope to India in 1999. He went with the Pope to visit the home of Mahatma Gandhi. He was bored, and watched without interest the Pope remove his shoes to honour this holy Hindu. At best he hoped that the Pope would trip up so that he could get a good photo of him flat on the ground.

Then he got into conversation with an old Indian woman, who had known Gandhi and been sent by the Indian government to witness this event. She said ‘Gandhi did not have anything. He had only his two empty hands and his Hindu belief. But the powerful British empire, with all its gunboats and armies, was not able to win the fight against his empty hands. They had no chance against a small faithful Hindu. And so it is with the Pope. He didn’t have any armies either. He had only two empty hands like Gandhi, but the Russians were not able to win the fight against his belief, his deep trust in a liberating God.’

This was a moment of revelation that changed the journalist’s life for ever.

This Christmas most of us will have given and received gifts. We have probably looked for gifts that our friends do need. Even more profoundly our gifts are, like those of the magi, in recognition of who are the people whom we love. We delight in their humanity. If we give them books or wine, it is not just because they need these things, but because we take pleasure in the pleasure that they will have in them. We celebrate their enjoyment.

But the heart of all these celebrations is the one who needs no gifts from us but is pure gift. His very being is given to him by the Father from all eternity, and he comes to give himself to us in turn. To receive that gift, then we too need empty hands. We need to recognise that God’s fullness of life is what we most deeply yearn for and create a space to receive it.

The Herods of this world cannot receive the gift, for it would mean letting go of their own fullness and self-satisfaction. They can only see the powerless child as a threat. When Manuel Merten OP, who told me of this German journalist, went to see the Archbishop of Ho Chi Min city in Vietnam, he asked what was the secret of the wonderful success of the Church in Vietnam. He replied ‘I believe it’s our powerlessness which makes us so powerful.’

Readings: Isa 60:1-6 | Eph 3:2-3,5-6 | Matt 2:1-12

fr Timothy Radcliffe was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992 to 2001. A member of the community at Blackfriars, Oxford, he is the author of a number of very popular books and an internationally reputed speaker and retreat-giver.