Today commemorates the day when the Magi from the East gave recognition to Jesus in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mathew's gospel also tells us Herod tried to enlist them as unsuspecting agents in Herod's quest to wipe out his competition. Mathew goes on to say that after having a dream, the Magi took a different road back home thereby avoiding reporting back to Herod.
Tomorrow's gospel finishes the story when it tells us: When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
When I was a child, I had a difficult time understanding what slaughtering all these little boys had to do with the Christmas story. I was glad Joseph had another dream and took Jesus and Mary into Egypt, but I often wondered if Jesus was ever told the real reason He spent time in Egypt. I used to sit in Church wondering how I would react if I knew all those babies had to die because of my existence. That's why I appreciated the fact Anne Rice takes this up in her series on Jesus (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt). Jesus does not deal well with this knowledge. It turns out it's the big secret His family has tried to keep from Him.
But who were the Magi? Most scholars think the Magi were Zoroastrian priests---at least those who don't think Mathew made the whole story up as a literary device to prove Jesus's divinity as prophesied in the Old Testament.
Personally, I buy the Zoroastrian priest theory because of the mention of the star, and the dreams. Zoroastrians had a well developed Astronomy, and additionally, they had a well developed mystical and angelic tradition. Most of the names of the angels cited in our Bible are Persian in origin. It's probably not a coincidence that angel activity in the Old Testament really takes a spike during and after the Babylonian captivity when the Jews would have had a lot of interaction with Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrians also believed in a coming universal savior, and so three of their priests following a strange planetary alignment in order to seek out a savior could very well have happened. It wouldn't have mattered to them if this savior was not Persian. Their concept of this universal savior was not dependent on nation, race, or creed.
Other beliefs of ours which may be gifts of the Zoroastrians are our concepts of heaven and hell, the notion of an apocalyptic end time, the idea of man having free choice and the repercussions brought by those choices, a personified energy of chaos in the form of The Father of Lies, the idea of spiritual warfare between forces of good and chaos, and mystical ideas around the concept of light. John's gospel illustrates this thinking as he uses light in reference to Jesus.
So I guess you could say that the Magi and their predecessors have been giving gifts to Jews and Christians for some 500 or more years before the birth of Christ. I can't leave off without mentioning the fact that the original prophet of Zoroastrianism, Zarathustra related that he had been in direct contact with the "Spirit of Good Thought" and given some interesting mandates.
He was to preach against blood sacrifice and give aid to the poor. He was told to avoid the "Spirit of Lies" and do nothing to further that spirit's cause. He was also told to teach about the Last Judgement when angels would lead individuals over a narrow bridge at the end of which they would receive their judgement from the one God. A God portrayed as feminine. Hmm, I guess we didn't get all the gifts we could have.
Zoroastrian influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rarely acknowledged. Maybe it's time it was because we need to start recognizing our similarities, and one of those is that all these religions have been influenced by the same source---that pesky inner dimensional race known as angels.