The gift-giving zeal that is so much a part of the modern Christmas tradition has a beautiful origin that should be annually celebrated. Merry Christmas, 2014!
In the Magi and the story of their gifts to the Christ child, the grace and majesty that are so much a part of the Christmas story are indelibly written into the heart of mankind. Each year, we revisit the beautiful tradition. But somehow, though we desire to perpetuate their gracious act of worship, we fall short of that biblical majesty.
Have you lost the Christmas spirit? These days, it’s easy to do. Plentiful money and the incessant secular drive toward profit can easily drown out the spiritual majesty that recalls the birth of the Messiah. His gift to humanity disappears in a myriad of replicas, each meant to convey the meaning of the real thing, but cheap by comparison.
It’s that season again. The rush is on. The global machine is in high gear. Electronic credits and debits hum through the lines at record speed. For at least the last two months, shipments of toys, clothes, appliances, machines, gadgets, goodies, widgets, doodads, special prizes and surprises have been generated by the millions. The quest for that perfect Christmas gift rises to peak importance.
Motivated by the very human urge to love and be loved, we plot, plan and calculate. We search, research and investigate. We devote time, energy and planning to make Christmas the perfect day. Our motives for all this activity and expenditure may be sterling and flawless, born of the desire to bestow the favor of the season upon the deserving recipient. Or they may be a flawed attempt to compensate for wrongs done throughout the year.
They might even drift to the dark side. Christmas gifts may be politically calculated to achieve some desired effect for entirely selfish purposes. A bribe in the form of a gift is somehow acceptable. The internal dynamics of families, businesses and government bear witness to many gifts of deceit.
In the Christmas rush, which is moving more quickly every year, cynicism is often the chief residual product. Love can turn to disillusionment; the season can end in fatigue and frustration. The search for its “true spirit” becomes an annual quest, particularly for Christians. Some give up in disgust and say that the birth of Christ has nothing to do with the modern Christmas. But in fact, it does.
Indeed, the “Christmas spirit” is the real heart of the season. The term has long since been implanted into our vocabulary as an eminent reality, something to be experienced and memorialized. Or, as is often the case, to be sought without hope of realization. Often the muttering is heard: Christmas has become too commercialized. Of course it has.
The question is, can the Christmas spirit be legitimately expressed in monetary terms? Certainly it can, and often is. The answer is absolutely, yes!
Three Renowned Gifts
The gifts of the Magi were of extreme value. Though they were not given at Christmas, as we now know it, they present an archetype for the giving of Christmas gifts. In fact, as documented in the accompanying article, the Magi, those fabulously wealthy kingmakers from the East, brought gifts to the young toddler, Jesus. Their gifts were symbolic, but were no doubt far more than that.
It is well known that Jesus was not actually born on the 25th of December. From calculations based upon the course of Zacharias’ priesthood given in Luke 1:5, we can actually calculate the birth of his son, John the Baptist, to a date in mid-March. Jesus would have been born six months later, probably on Rosh HaShanah, as given in Luke, chapter 2, when the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
Some fifteen months later, probably at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, the Magi came to Bethlehem (the “wise men” of Matthew 2:1) to visit the toddler Jesus. This would have been around the time represented by the modern Christmas date of December 25th.
Persians of vast wealth and power, they are said to have had the authority to make and break monarchies. They were called Magi, a Persian designation of their caste. As has long been known, they were monotheists, who had been heavily influenced by Jewish beliefs and the teachings of the prophets of Israel. They came to Bethlehem in their official role, to confer upon Jesus, the title of King and High Priest of Israel.
After making their official call upon Herod in Jerusalem, the Idumean pretender to Israel’s throne, they headed south, to Bethlehem. These were men of the highest wealth and power, riding their thoroughbred horses and travelling with wagons, food, luggage, tents and an army. Had they not come in strength, Herod would have ordered them killed where they stood. It is no overstatement to say that they had the power to launch and sustain kingdoms. They were also considered to be legitimate prophets in their own right.
Our contemporary view of them as simple wise men is totally mistaken. Certainly, they were wise, but they were also skilled in the politics of the Middle East, and were sensitively aware that a prophesied King had come into their midst. Doubtless, it was their intention to assist Him – monetarily and politically – in His rise to power. Herod instinctively knew this, and wanted both them and the new King out of the way.
Their three gifts to Jesus have become part of the Christmas tradition, a singular act of adoration that resounded throughout the universe as the unique confirmation of the One who would restore all things.
Their first gift, gold, symbolic of monarchy, reminds us of the wealth of the Kingdom, founded by David and expanded by Solomon, who received nearly a billion dollars in gold (by modern reckoning) from the Queen of Sheba alone. The Phoenician navy brought more gold from the place called Ophir. No one knows how much.
“And all king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver: it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon.
“For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:21,22).
These Magi who bowed before Jesus, must have promised similar wealth. Given their reputation, they had it to give. They brought no mere chalice, or bracelet, or chain, or even a bag of gold coins. What they brought was the wealth appropriate to the King, affirmed by the kingmakers, themselves. They promised a fortune fit for Solomon, and probably more.
Their second gift, frankincense, symbolizes the acts of the Levitical priesthood, and the prayers of the people. It is included among the ingredients that were placed in the Tabernacle’s altar of incense by the priest. Its rising smoke signifies acceptable prayer:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight:
“And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy:
“And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy” (Ex. 30:34-36).
To the toddler Jesus, the Magi gave this gift, representing his priestly office. It prophetically pointed to his resurrected and glorified state, after which He would adopt His present intercessory office as our great High Priest. Through Him, our prayers are made effectual.
Their third gift, myrrh, is also associated with the Aaronic priesthood. It is the principal ingredient of the holy anointing oil, the ingredients of which were given to Moses by the Lord:
“Moreover the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
“Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels,
“And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin:
“And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.
“And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office” (Ex. 30:22-25, 30).
These verses tell us that myrrh was originally used for the ceremony of priestly anointment, and was specially prepared for the consecration of the Aaronic order. It, too, speaks of priestly consecration. But in its actual use in Israelite society at that time, it carried another, and most significant, meaning.
Myrrh is a gum of exquisite fragrance. It is exuded from a tree that grows in the hotter climates of the Middle East. In the Old Testament, its fragrance is associated with beauty, as an ingredient in fine perfume. Therefore, the Jews used it to bury their dead.
In fact, since it was commonly used as a burial spice, its most powerful prophetic connotation is that of preparation for death. In the following Scripture, Jesus clarifies the actions of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. He explains that through divine guidance, she was prophetically preparing Him for His burial.
Twice in the following passage, the word “ointment” is used. It is a translation of the Greek muron, from murra, the word for myrrh oil. Though it is elsewhere referred to as spiknard, it was probably a blend, based upon myrrh. Jesus specifically refers to it as an essential element of preparation for burial:
“Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
“There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
“But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
“For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
“When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
“For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
“For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial” (Matt. 26:6-12).
Even at His infancy, the Magi recognized Jesus as King and Priest. But they also foretold His death and burial. Looking backward, we now see the importance of his death and entombment during the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread. When he arose at Firstfruits, as the first of many who would be resurrected in His name, He gave back far more than He had received. The gifts of the Magi were only a dim foreshadowing of the gifts that the young Messiah would give to all mankind.
Christ’s Own Gifts
In a beautiful way, the Apostle Paul explains how Christ’s gifts, received from the Magi, are distributed to men. It was necessary for Him to die, as so often prophesied, to rise up and bless all mankind:
“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.
“Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:7,8; 11,12).
When the Magi came to pay their respects to Jesus, their visit was in fact, a prophecy, which is still in the long process of being fulfilled. One day, the world will recognize the beauty of the risen Christ, as these faithful men from Persia once did, even before He arose.
In fact, there is a prophecy to that effect, given by Isaiah in his future view of the Kingdom, when Christ will be seated upon David’s throne:
“Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.
“The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD” (Is. 60:5,6).
Note that the Gentiles are shown bringing tributes of gold and incense, typifying His Kingdom and His Priesthood. But myrrh is not included, nor should it be, since His death has already been accomplished, once for all time. His gifts, duly received and acknowledged, have been redistributed to humanity.
Recapture the Spirit of Christmas
Their cost and their value is inestimable. In some dimly-perceived way, our annual Christmas rush to bless others with a profusion of gifts is motivated by a recognition of what Christ gave to humanity in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. At a conscious level, we tend to forget the details of his magnificent act.
But in their hearts, even the most faithless know that His act of love lies at the heart of everything we recognize as culture and civilization. They know that blessing comes from the Lord. Why else would secular men be so eager to eradicate every last trace of Christmas from the public concourse? A manger scene or a gift of love, even a brightly-colored tribute, is anathema to them. They know about the gift, and they want to cover it up.
This year, take a deep breath and think about what He has given you. His love will flow through you to others. In that moment, you might just recapture the elusive spirit of Christmas.