“The Gift of the Magi” is a short story by an American author named O. Henry. It’s the story of a poor couple struggling to make ends meet.
It was Christmas, and Della and Jim were determined to give each other a special gift. But because they didn’t have any money, they had to be creative.
Unbeknownst to Della, Jim decided to sell his gold pocket watch—a family heirloom—and use the money to buy Della a beautiful set of combs for her lovely long hair. For her part, Della cut her hair and sold it so that she could buy Jim a chain for his watch. When they unveiled their gifts, both were deeply moved. The gifts themselves weren’t all that extravagant, but as far as this couple was concerned, they were extremely valuable.
The point to this story is simple. Tokens of love are the most valuable gifts a person can give. Jim’s watch was priceless because it was more than just a timepiece. It represented his heritage, his ties to his father and his grandfather. Likewise, Della’s hair was a symbol of her femininity and her free spirit. This was what they gave to each other—not a chain and combs, but the treasures of their hearts.
So let’s take this principle and apply it to the story of the woman with the alabaster jar. John identified this woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, but Mathew and Mark leave her nameless. So we are left a bit puzzled as to who she really was. But there is no puzzle about what the woman did: she anointed Jesus with costly perfume. Take a moment to picture the scene. Imagine her on her knees, her eyes totally focused on Jesus with a look of humility and devotion.
This woman knew how valuable the perfume was. She knew that she could have kept it for herself or sold it for a good amount of money. But she didn’t care. In her mind, the cost of the perfume was nothing compared to Jesus. It was a sacrifice she wanted to make. Instead of worrying about the valuable perfume she was squandering, she probably wondered what else she could do for him!
Let’s take a look at why her gift of perfume was so valuable to the Lord.
Priceless Gifts. We all know that Jesus gave us a priceless gift on the cross. It cost him his entire life! This is the true measure of a gift’s value: the sacrifice made by the one giving it, not the money he or she spends on it. But what about us? What can we possibly give to Jesus in exchange for all that he has given to us? Certainly we can’t find anything to equal the gift of his cross!
Well, in a way we can. The answer is in the jar. It’s you! Just as the woman’s jar held something precious and valuable, you too hold something precious and valuable: your heart. You may not feel all that important at times, but always remember that almighty God calls you his child. He values you so highly that he gave his only Son to redeem you. So yes, you can give the Lord a precious gift. You give it to him every time you praise him, every time you follow his commands, and every time you imitate him by living a life of mercy and faith. You may not be able to give him an equal gift by dying for him as he has died for you, but Jesus doesn’t measure our gifts on this kind of a scale.
Love, and the gifts motivated by that love, is not a matter of equality. It’s a matter of the heart. Della and Jim knew this truth. Parents know it too. When they receive a small gift from their young children—maybe a drawing they have made or a small trinket they have bought—they are moved by the gesture. The gift is priceless, not because of what it is or its monetary value, but because of who gave it and why.
Jesus knows our hearts. He knows what is inside the “jar” of our lives. He understands what we are capable of giving him, and he doesn’t expect anything beyond that. Simply by giving him what we can each day, we are doing a “good thing” for him (Matthew 26:10). That’s what makes our gifts priceless.
She Did What She Could. This sounds simple enough, but there’s a catch. If all we give to the Lord is a token statement of faith while our hearts are preoccupied with some other love, we miss the mark. “Only what we can give” is not meant to set a low standard. Giving our hearts to Jesus involves our lifestyle, not just our Mass attendance or the amount of time we spend in prayer. It’s a disposition that says, “Jesus, you haven given up so much for me. I want to be just as generous to you in return.” Della had only her hair. Jim had only his pocket watch. That was all they had to give each other, and that was what made their gifts so precious and priceless.
The woman who anointed Jesus demonstrated this disposition. She poured out all of her perfume on him. She didn’t give him just a couple of drops; she gave him all she had. On one level, what the woman did wasn’t all that helpful. She couldn’t keep the disciples from getting indignant toward her. She couldn’t change Judas’ mind and keep him from handing Jesus over. She couldn’t keep the chief priests and the elders from executing their plot against him. She couldn’t persuade Pilate to release Jesus. She couldn’t keep the soldiers from mocking and beating him. She couldn’t keep Jesus from being crucified.
But she could do something, and that’s exactly what she did: “She did what she could” (Mark 14:8). She showed Jesus how much she loved him by sacrificing her most prized possession. While the apostles argued over which of them was the greatest, while Judas was preoccupied with his plan to betray Jesus, and while everyone else was busy getting ready for Passover, she gave him her full and complete attention. She was preoccupied only with giving him the honor and respect that he deserved.
Passion? Or Moderation? An old saying tells us to take everything “in moderation.” While that philosophy works well when it comes to eating, drinking, work, and recreation, it doesn’t work so well when it comes to our disposition toward Jesus. Jesus didn’t have a moderate love for us, and we shouldn’t have a moderate love for him. He dedicated every ounce of his energy, every second of his time, and every drop of his blood, to us. Surely we can show him more than everyday moderation in our devotion to him!
When he danced with delight before the ark of the covenant, King David demonstrated a zeal that surpassed the call to moderation. When Abraham left his home to travel to a land he had never even heard about, he showed a dedication that many people must have considered extreme. And nothing compares to the zeal, the faith, and the love that the Virgin Mary showed when she told the angel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
This is the kind of zeal and passion displayed by the woman who anointed Jesus. And, as the other heroes and heroines of faith discovered, anything that goes beyond moderation is met with judgment and rejection by other people. That’s precisely how the disciples reacted to her display of extreme devotion. They were looking for moderation, not exaggeration. But she would not be deterred. And Jesus blessed her for it.
Moderation implies not getting too emotional, not going overboard, not being too passionate. It doesn’t have room for David’s dancing, Abraham’s wandering, or Mary’s surrender. It doesn’t have room for pouring a whole jar of expensive perfume over a rabbi from Nazareth. But this kind of dedication touches Jesus deeply. It fills him with joy and gratitude, and it moves him to pour out his own blessings in response.
Passionate Devotion. This woman’s story urges us to be extravagant in our dedication to the Lord. It urges us to fight off any indignant thoughts or the idea that spending so much of ourselves on Jesus is a “waste” (Matthew 26:8). It tells us that such extravagance is beautiful and deeply pleasing to the Lord.
When we are passionate about someone, we want to spend time with that person even though it means giving up other things to do so. We make the time because we love to be with him or her. We even take a certain kind of interior delight as we make these sacrifices because they always help to deepen our love.
That’s how we should come to Jesus—at every Mass, every prayer time, and every time we care for his people. It’s not the amount of the gift that counts. It’s not the time spent that counts. It’s the disposition that counts. May we all try our best to do what we can. May zeal for the Lord consume all of us!