December 21st: Gifts

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Gold, Frankincense and MyrrhAnd going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11

The gifts of the wise men have often led us to think that there were three of them, although we actually don’t know the number of travelers from the east, only that out of their treasures there were three things in particular that they offered the Christ child; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Neither does Matthew tell us why these gifts in particular were chosen, or indeed where they ended up, although various theories have been developed based on what we know of their use in the ancient world.

Gold is traditionally thought to represent Christ’s kingship and divinity as it was a very valuable commodity and mentioned throughout the Bible associated with both God and idols. Frankincense is thought to be a symbol of the holiness, righteousness and priestly role of Christ, as it was frequently burnt in worship, releasing a strong fragrance. The gift of myrrh is thought to foretell Christ’s suffering and affliction as He gave himself up to death on the cross, as it was often used in the embalming process. Whether the wise men were aware of these deeper meanings is unknown; the gifts were valuable items that were typically presented to honor a king or deity and could also be used for many medicinal purposes, so they may simply have been what they deemed as appropriate.

What interests me most as I reflect on this afresh is the manner in which these gifts were offered. It seems clear that the wise men were giving the very best of what they had; these were not kings in the sense that they have sometimes been portrayed and had not acquired wealth through military victories or inheritance. These were gifts that that they had likely earned over a period of time through their work studying the stars. They gave to the infant out of their own most valuable treasures, to a baby destined to become the king of another people, with no expectation of return. That is generous giving indeed. As we become embroiled in gift giving once again this Christmas we might reflect on what it is we offer God, not because we hope we might get something back, but because we know He is worthy.

Jesus, just as frankincense rose before you in ancient worship, may our prayers also be set before you like incense (Psalm 141:2). Would you find our worship of you equal to that of the wise men; may we give it wholeheartedly and without bringing our own agenda. You alone are worthy of our praise. Amen.

December 20th: The Star

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The starAfter listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  Matthew 2:9-10

The star in the Christmas story has become iconic, appearing in various forms on the tops of our trees and on numerous cards. Many different theories have been offered about the star that the Magi were following, so here is your very short guide to the star of Bethlehem.

Some suggest that the star was a supernatural apparition, or perhaps even an angel, a theory which is predominantly based on the unusual movement of the star described in Matthew 2:9. However, Matthew doesn’t indicate to us anything of the supernatural about it; he doesn’t say for instance that it was ‘sent’ in the way the angels were and he definitely calls it something different. This leaves a few natural explanations:

  • It could have been a comet, which would have been visible ‘wandering’ across the night’s sky for weeks or even months. People in Roman times tended to fear comets as they were thought to indicate a coming disaster, often the death of the king, which might explain why Herod was so disturbed about the news.
  • It could have been a nova or supernova which suddenly appears in the sky as if by magic and slowly fades to obscurity over a few weeks or months. This would fit with the idea of a single bright star in the sky.
  • It could alternatively have been a planetary conjunction. There was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC which would have suggested to Babylonian astrologers the idea of a king in ‘the Westland’, their name for Palestine.

Whatever the explanation, the star in the Christmas story reminds me of the all-powerful nature of God who is the creator and controller of all things, even beyond our own planet. As he was ensuring that each star was accounted for at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:16), he must also have been planning them so that, at exactly the right time, one would appear to mark His greatest work of all, the sending of His Son. At the end of a long journey it says that the Magi were not just a little happy to see this star come to rest at the place of Christ’s birth. They rejoiced exceedingly. However awesome the star was, it was but a sign of something even more amazing.

Lord, we worship you because you are a powerful God who brings out each and every star in the sky, calling them all by name, ensuring that not one is missing (Isaiah 40:26). Every time we look at the stars in the sky may we be reminded of your great works, and, like the wise men, may we be filled with great joy. Amen.

December 18th: The Magi

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The MagiNow after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

It is commonly accepted that the visit of the ‘wise men from the east’ known as ‘Magi’ did not take place immediately after Jesus’ birth but sometime within two years of it, yet perhaps because of its positioning in Matthew’s gospel it has become to us a fundamental part of the Christmas story. Magi were astrologers who would have acted as advisers to kings in many eastern states and who derived their knowledge from a combination of calculated astronomical observations and an ‘interpretation’ like that we might expect from present-day horoscopes. We know that their status was significant enough to gain them an audience with King Herod.

What is interesting is that in Matthew’s gospel, where we see a particular concern with showing Christ’s fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, these foreign dignitaries were better equipped to spot the fulfilment of the prophecy concerning the star than many Jews as Jewish people did not commonly practice astrology. Indeed, it seems that King Herod and the people of Jerusalem were pretty oblivious to these cosmic movements prior to the Magi’s visit. In the journey of the wise men we see clearly God’s intention that the birth of Christ would be good news not only for Jews but also for those outside of Israel, who were known as Gentiles. The grafting in of all people into God’s kingdom was not a mere after thought but another important part of God’s plan that existed in the detail of ancient prophecy.

Not only that, but the desire of the Magi not to miss out on this important event but to participate in worshiping the child whose star they had seen was so strong that they had been willing to travel very far from home and at considerable cost of time and money. As we consider the sacrifice that they made we might ask ourselves what lengths we are willing to go to in order to seek and pursue God in our lives. The Magi on the basis of simply a single star in the sky had been willing to take the risk. How far will we go and what level of discomfort are we willing to endure when we now have the privilege of knowing the abundant riches to be had in Christ?

Lord, thank you that the birth of Jesus is good news for all people, no matter who they are or where they are from; there is no distinctions of race, gender or status for you, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Help us to be diligent as the wise men were in seeking you. Show us what sacrifices we need to make in our lives to create space to worship and adore you. Amen.