The joy and wonder of Christmas. Even devout American Christians have grown up enamored with the holiday. Not fully for its recognition for the birth of Christ rather as a time to exchange presents with others. Every year the battle to remove Christ from Christmas takes on new propaganda. Year after year some people intent on nullifying the celebration point to history, both accurate and distorted, as a means by which to discredit the advent season. Some point to the economic benefits of “believing” in Santa Claus as justification to perpetuate the tradition of gift exchange. Stress, crowds, debt, and lack of gratitude have become as much of a holiday tradition as snowmen and elves. Is this really what celebrating the birth of Jesus is about? I think not.
There are a few popular versions of how the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas began. I don’t care enough to follow the research to figure out when the tradition really began. Gifting at Christmas was around before me and most likely will be around long after me. I have always enjoyed the tradition of gift exchange. As a boy it was seemingly impossible to sleep on Christmas Eve. My mind filled with wonder about how a fat guy was going to be able to sneak into the house, leave presents, eat cookies and milk and not even disturb the dog. For years after giving up believing the myth of Santa I still could not readily sleep the night before Christmas. How did my parents hide so much stuff in our house? After all there were five kids. And how did they wrap them and put them under the tree without anyone seeing?
One present I remember in particular was a red ambulance toy. This thing was huge for a toy car. It was big enough that as a five-year old I could sit on it and scoot down the sidewalk. It had red and blue plastic “lights” on top and the back doors opened. This was a good one made out of metal. That was a great toy! I don’t remember it going away, just at some time it wasn’t there anymore. I figure it was used up and mom tossed it one day while I was at school. The best ending for any gift is for it to be used to its fullest extent until it is gone.
Perhaps the most well known gifts associated with Christmas are the ones the wise men gave to Jesus. The account is found in the Bible in the book of Matthew in chapter 2. (NIV) 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. 13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This passage gives us a considerable amount of clues as to the timing of Jesus birth as well as a reference to some of the prophecies fulfilled by Christ. It also points to the probability that the wise men were not present at the actual time of birth but arrived a relatively short time later. The three gifts given are of notable consideration. Gold has obvious value. Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin obtained from an African tree and burned as incense. Myrrh is a fragrant gum resin obtained from certain trees and used, especially in the Near East, in perfumery, medicines, and incense. The three gifts are known for being ‘kings gifts’.
Another clue that the wise men were not present at the time of Jesus birth is given in Luke. Luke 2:22-24 (NIV) 22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
The “law” made an allowance for a person too poor to afford a sheep to instead use a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Leviticus 12). The fact that the Magi traveled a great distance suggests this was not a gift of small quantities. Yet Mary and Joseph, known for their commitment to the law, could not afford a lamb when Jesus was eight days old suggesting they had not yet been visited by the Magi. From what is known of Jesus later years, he did not have wealth. So what happened to the gifts?
The Bible does not tell us how the gifts were used. It doesn’t matter what happened to them, but it is interesting to contemplate scripture. That being understood, I will suggest a possible explanation only as a ponderable idea. In Matthew 2 we read about Mary and Josephs escape to Egypt. What we know from history of the time period was the incredibly cruel reign of King Herod the Great. Traveling out of the country would have been dangerous, difficult, and required paying forced bribes. That would be in addition to the expenses of daily living. It is plausible the gifts were used up in the earliest years of Jesus life.
The real gift given at Jesus birth was Jesus Christ. John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus was given to the world as a gift. In his human form Jesus gave himself fully for us. In turn He gave us the free gift of eternity. Through Christ we can have peace, joy, love, and fellowship with God. Now that is what Christmas is really about. Oh the joy and wonder of Christmas! I hope yours is filled with blessings.
Rev. Burt Schwab