Every year our preconceived ideas of what happened are reinforced by the Christmas cards that we send and receive. Most card designers get it all wrong. And I don’t blame them. The original Christmas is so much less appetising than the one that really took place. If you take away the snowman, the robin redbreast and the stable then what you’re left with doesn’t make for a great picture.
I’m not the first person to say that there’s a fair bit of myth in the traditional Christmas. The Archbishop of Canterbury put himself in hot water a few years ago for suggesting something very similar. He argued that much of what passes for the traditional Christmas is simply legend and can’t be established from historical records. I’m not known for defending the Archbishop of Canterbury. But on this one, he’s right.
And so I want to take the opportunity in this post to clear away some of the confusion that’s arisen about Christmas.
Take Matthew 2:1-12, for example. What we’re about to consider is embodied in the carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are. It’s one of those carols for which the dodgy lyrics are so much easier to remember than the real ones. So you’ll have no trouble in remembering
We three kings of orient are, One in a taxi and one in a car, One on a scooter blowing his hooter, Following yonder star.
The second verse may be less well known,
We three kings of Leicester Square, Selling pants a penny a pair, Quite fantastic no elastic, Not very safe to wear.
The internet has made my job so much easier! But even the real lyrics of that carol get it all wrong. Not all wrong, that’s not fair. They get some things right.
We can be pretty sure that they were blokes. If they were women they’d have stopped and asked for directions, got there in time for the birth, helped deliver the baby, cleaned up the stable, cooked a lasagne, arranged a food rota and brought something more useful for the baby than gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But we know that they weren’t kings. They were Magi, a sort of astrology-theology hybrid. Their well intentioned scientific study of the stars and their interpretation of ancient writings provided them work acting as advisers in Royal Courts. It just so happened that their interpretation about ‘the one born king of the Jews’, was spot on.
We don’t know how many there were. It’s a good guess that there were three of them since there were three types of gifts. But when was the last time you went to a party and all the blokes remembered to bring a present? It’s much more likely that there were more than three.
We don’t know what they were called. Tradition has given them the names; Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar, which make great names for goldfish. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that these were their real names.
So what do we know? Let’s put tradition to one side for a moment and look at the Bible.
Matthew, the writer of the gospel named after him, took great care to record historically reliable information about these significant events. He was one of Jesus’ first followers, having left behind his job as a Jewish tax collector. So our author was an accountant working for the civil service. You’ll see where I’m going to go with this. I don’t suppose they’ve undergone significant evolutionary change. The questionable sartorial taste and tedious conversational topics have no doubt remained. But more importantly for our purposes so has the fastidious attention to detail. Which means that when Matthew says in (1), ‘after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod’ we can be sure that this is a deliberate attempt to locate these events in terms of geography and history. Matthew wants us to know that though this is Christmas, it’s not panto. The birth of Jesus took place at a particular place and a particular time.
Matthew is one of two gospel writers, the other being Luke, to spend considerable time on the events around the birth of Jesus Christ. Matthew is the only one to record the visit of these astrologer theologians. They came from the east to search out a new king. Matthew wants us to know that this is not only a king for the Jewish people but that he’s king for everyone. But for most people, Jesus is one of the dispensable parts of Christmas. We could never do without mulled wine, mince pies or a tree. But Jesus is expendable. But the wise men realised that he’s the most enjoyable bit.
We see that in their response to finding Jesus. Matthew tells us that they responded in three ways.
1. They were overjoyed (10)
When the wise men saw the star they were absolutely delighted. This was among the happiest moments of their lives. They were so delighted to have found the child king. And like the bubbles in our seasonal Prosecco, their irrepressible elation rose to the surface.
I suspect that we find the jubilation of the wise men a little discomforting. It’s a million miles away from the cool hearted detachment with which most of us respond to the existence of Jesus. Enthusiasm makes us nervous, especially religious enthusiasm. And above all there’s nothing that unnerves us quite so much as enthusiastic religious men. But their discovery of Jesus was so exciting that they couldn’t contain themselves. For men to get excited it has to be pretty significant. It takes something as significant and rare as English sporting success to get me on my feet in praise.
Are we prepared to get excited about the existence of Jesus Christ? Some of us may not be there yet, but what if we go back a stage. Are we prepared to believe that there’s something about Jesus that might give us reason to get excited? Millions of people around the world have discovered Jesus Christ for themselves, some of them may be known to you, many of them have done that as adults and they’re chuffed to bits. Could you be next?
2. They paid homage (11)
On seeing Jesus for the first time the wise men fell to their knees. This is an unusual way for a grown up to respond to a child. I have a friend whose young son whose misbehaviour was doing her head in. On the pavement outside Brixton station she got down on all fours and pleaded with him to stop whingeing. It must’ve have made a great sight!
We might expect an adult to stoop down on their haunches and approach a child on their level in order to be understood. But that’s not what’s going on here. The word’s translated ‘bowed down’ and ‘worshipped him’ imply that they prostrated themselves on the ground before him. That’s not normal. Adults don’t usually lie down flat on the ground in front of small children unless they have very good reason to do so. These wise men thought that they did. They were absolutely convinced that this child possessed authority unlike any other.
They knew that this child was already a king. We’re not exactly sure why they came to this conclusion. It may be that since they came from the east they were inhabitants of the Babylonian Empire. Therefore the deported Jewish immigrants taken from Israel under military exile in the 6th C BC might have taught them that the Old Testament. After all, as the quote from the prophet Micah in (6) makes clear, the Old Testament anticipates a new world leader to come from Israel. We just don’t know. But what we do know is that this child is the king of kings.
And so, will we treat this child with the respect that he deserves? Many of us respond to Jesus with indifference, we can’t be bothered to do hostility. But our indifference towards Jesus is not a small thing. It’s one thing to be apathetic about any old newborn. But this is not any old newborn. This child was born the eternal divine king. I can’t expect to persuade you of that in a two thousand word blog post. But the existence of global worshipping communities throughout history who have been absolutely convinced of this child’s uniqueness ought at least to open us up to the possibility that there’s someone to be reckoned with within that manger.
The Bible’s consistent testimony is that every single one of us, regardless of our age, class or ideology should copy these wise men and get on our knees in submission and give him the respect he deserves.
3. They gave gifts (12)
Matthew tells us that the wise men opened their treasures and from them brought out gold, frankincense and myrrh. He says nothing about the meaning of these three gifts. Obviously there’s been lots of speculation. Theologians since the days of Origen have suggested that there’s deep symbolism to their choice of gifts. But we need to remember that their men and most blokes don’t give a lot of thought to the significance of their gifts. They just want them to be expensive, then useful and occasionally they’ll give some thought to desirability.
- Gold indicates royalty because this child had been born the King of the Jews.
- Frankincense indicates divinity because this child though a human was also divine.
- Myrrh indicates mortality because this child was born to give himself in sacrificial death.
What’s most surprising amongst those gifts is the myrrh. I’m pretty sure I’ve given some inappropriate gifts in my time. There was the Christmas when I bought my wife a cookbook, a food mixer and some kitchen knives! It’s what she needed! But giving embalming spices to a newborn takes the biscuit. But actually it’s right on the money. This child was always going to die. Every child will die. But this one had a special death to die. The kid in the manger became the man on the cross. And when Jesus died on the cross, he bore the brunt of his Father’s anger, so that we wouldn’t have to. His death protects us. He saves us from destruction. That’s wonderful. It’s as though, in his substitutionary death, Jesus acted like a lightning conductor. It’s there to protect a building. It bears the brunt of a lightning strike so that the building doesn’t have to. It saves the building from destruction.
Given that Jesus is the sort of divine king that dies to save his people from their sins, we can begin to appreciate why these wise men were so lavish in the gifts they showered on this young boy. They gave their best because he gave himself.
I’m sure it’s entirely fictitious but I heard a story this week about a boy at church who found himself in an awkward position when the collection plate came around. Seeing this large metal plate being passed along the pew on its way towards him he scrambled about in his pockets and brought out a conker, a marble, a piece of used chewing gum and a paper clip. As the plate came to him he put it on the ground and stepped on it. It was a graphic way of saying that he belonged to Jesus because Jesus had captured his heart.
Are we prepared to give ourselves? Does the idea that we could give something of what we have in adoration of and devotion to this child seem utterly preposterous?
I wonder whether you’ve ever had to search for something you really wanted to find. I lost my eldest son once and I was like a man possessed. I needn’t have worried. He’d locked himself in the toilets at Tooting Leisure Centre with a girl from down the street. They were six.
If we want something desperately enough, if we value it highly enough we’ll go to any lengths to track it down. There’s nothing we won’t turn upside down in our relentless pursuit. Everything gets put on hold until we’ve got what we want in our possession.
These Gentile astrologer theologians were absolutely determined to track down a child they regarded as the king of kings. I’m not suggesting that we need to go to the same lengths as they did. The good news is that we don’t need to. But let me encourage us not to give up on the search until we’ve found what we’re looking for.