A group of women were enjoying a gourmet meal in the dining room of a 5 star hotel’s restaurant. Another woman approached them and asked, “What’s the occasion?” One of the women replied, “We’re celebrating my four-year-old son’s birthday!” “That’s great,” the other woman said, “But where is he?” The first woman responded, “Oh, you don’t think I would bring him to a classy place like this, do you?”
Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Christ’s birthday; but there seems to be a tendency to push Him into the background or even forget about Him. Why is that so, and what can we do to offset this tendency? A brief study of history and a careful examination of Matthew 2:1-11 give us some answers.
The Real Santa Claus
First, let’s consider the history of gift-giving at Christmas. Did you know that the church did not celebrate the birth of Christ as a holiday until the mid-fourth century? Before that tradition became widespread, a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church in Patara, Lycia, known today as southern Turkey, became famous for giving gifts. Born to wealthy parents, he was raised as a devout Christian and taught the virtue of giving to the poor.
Nicholas’ parents died of a plague while he was still a youth. He determined that he would dispose of his fortune by giving anonymous gifts to poor families, especially to underprivileged children. He became respected and beloved for his charity and generosity, and eventually was elected Bishop of Myra. After his death, his admirers continued the tradition of making anonymous gifts to poor children in the name of Saint Nicholas. The historical Saint Nicholas eventually became legendary. His story was embellished, confused with pagan Nordic folklore and finally secularized into what we know today as Santa Claus.
Gift-Giving Tradition in the Church
In 350 A.D. Pope Julius I confirmed a longstanding Christian belief by officially designating December 25 as the “Feast of the Nativity”, and the Church began to celebrate the birth of Christ. Pagan Romans were already celebrating a festival honoring the god, Saturn, beginning on December 17 and lasting until the 20th or 22nd. It was customary for the Romans to exchange gifts of candles and small ceramic figurines among family members and close neighbors. As the Roman Empire’s power faded and the church’s power grew, Christmas eventually replaced Saturnalia. In the process, it acquired some of Saturnalia’s unobjectionable practices, such as the exchange of gifts between family and friends.
The Passionate Interest of the Wise Men
Of course, there is a precedent for gift giving that goes all the way back to the early life of Christ. I am referring to the visit of the wise men recorded in Matthew 2:1-11. We don’t know exactly who these men were or where they came from. Matthew calls them “magi”. The most likely explanation is that they were scientists/philosophers from Babylon. Remember that many Jews, including Daniel the prophet, were taken captive to Babylon in 586 B.C. Daniel was one of the leaders of the wise men under King Nebuchadnezzar’s rule.
They had seen a star rising which somehow directed them toward Jerusalem. After they began their journey, which apparently took over a year, the star disappeared. Convinced from their studies of the Jewish prophecies that they were seeking a Divine ruler they pressed on their journey until they reached Jerusalem.
The Bitter Hostility of the King
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they created quite a stir by asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The current king, Herod was not born a king. He had to win the favor of Rome and lead an army in successful conquest before he attained his rule. In fact, he was not even a Jew. He was an Idumaean, a neighboring people who had been subjugated by the Maccabean ruler, John Hyrcanus, around 130 B.C. Nearing the end of his life, Herod was physically sick and mentally paranoid about any threat to his reign and the dynasty he was establishing. Feigning an interest in worshiping this new king, he actually was plotting to find him and kill him. He was hostile to the Messiah.
The Strange Indifference of the Religious Leaders
Herod asked the chief priests and the leading Bible scholars where the Messiah, the Savior, was to be born. They without hesitation referred to the prophet, Micah, Chapter 5, verse 2, which pinpointed the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judea, the home town of King David. Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem. The wise men had traveled over a year to reach Jerusalem, but the Jewish religious leaders would not bother to make the short trip to Bethlehem to check out the wise men’s story about the star. They were indifferent to the prophecies about Messiah.
Disappointment Without Discouragement
The wise men made their way to Bethlehem, not knowing how they would identify the one child from at least 25 or 30 prospective homes. To their delight, the star reappeared and hovered over the house where Joseph and Mary were living. They joyfully anticipated meeting their king. By the way, the star must have been a supernatural manifestation of the glory of God, similar to the appearance of God’s glory to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans (Acts 7:2) and the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites at night during the wilderness wanderings.
The wise men were Gentiles who earnestly desired to pay homage to the Jewish Messiah in spite of difficulties discouragements and disappointments. They were willing to risk the long arduous journey. They were not discouraged by the indifference of the Jewish religious leaders. Neither were they disappointed when their expectations were not met. Evidently they anticipated that the one born a king would be in a palace, attended with great honor and respect. Instead, they were led to a quite ordinary little house in an ordinary small village to an ordinary poor family, and for all outward appearances, to an ordinary little toddler about 18 months old.
Instead of being discouraged they first offered themselves to the king in worship and obeisance. Then they presented their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t attach symbolic meaning to the gifts, but Christian tradition has seen in them the anticipation of Christ’s three-fold ministry:
- The gold suggests His kingship.
- The frankincense suggests the prayers of His priestly ministry.
- The myrrh suggests His faithful ministry and death as a prophet.
Anyway, the gifts were quite valuable commodities, which providentially provided financial resources for the family’s flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to assassinate Jesus.
In some ways we are in similar circumstances today as the wise men were nearly 2,000 years ago. Parts of our culture are hostile toward Christianity and want to do away with Jesus Christ in the public life of our nation. Even many of our religious leaders have become indifferent to the moral teachings of Christ and the prophecies that predict His second coming. There is the difficult temptation to be distracted by the cultural accretions to the Christmas celebration and its commercialization.
There are difficulties, discouragements and disappointments that would quench our joy as we attempt to remember and celebrate the birth of our Savior. I heard a friend say, “I just can’t get into the spirit of Christmas this year. It doesn’t seem like Christmas to me.” I understood why she felt that way. Her husband had died that year, and it was the first Christmas she had spent without him.
We have the freedom in Christ to enjoy all the wholesome cultural traditions that have come to be associated with Christmas:
- Exchanging gifts with family and friends
- Decorating beautiful Christmas trees
- Going to parties and enjoying good food and fellowship
When we do them in the name of Christ and in His honor they are good and desirable; but when you are going through grief, when you have lost your job, your financial security or your health, it takes something deeper to bring joy to your heart at Christmas.
The wise men showed us what that something is. They overcame difficulties, discouragements and disappointments by focusing their attention on the Christ, our Savior, the One Who gave Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, Who intercedes in prayer for us at the right hand of God as our high priest, and Who is coming again to rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords in righteousness and peace. They gave themselves to Him in worship and praise. They gave Him their resources as gifts.
How can we give gifts to Christ today when He is not physically present with us? Jesus said, “…To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40 NASV) The context of this passage is the judgment of the Gentile nations at the end of the tribulation period. “These brothers of mine” is a reference to the Jewish believers who survive the tribulation. The Gentiles who show compassion to the Jewish believers who represent Christ during the tribulation will be accepted into the Messianic kingdom along with the Jewish brethren.
During His earthly ministry Jesus referred to His disciples as “brethren”. He also identified Himself with children:
“Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:36-37 NASV)
The true spirit of Christmas gift giving is first to give ourselves to Christ in worship and devotion, and then to give to our needy fellow Christians and little children with compassion, kindness and generosity. William Barclay tells this story about Martin of Tours:
He was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money; but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold, and Martin gave what he had. He took off his soldier’s coat, worn and frayed as it was; he cut it in two and gave half of it to the beggar man.
That night he had a dream. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them; and Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to Him, “Master, why are You wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to You?” And Jesus answered softly, “My servant, Martin, gave it to Me.”
J. Ray Smith, President, Fair Havens Publications
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