Matthew, the writer of the gospel that bears his name, opens the second chapter of his book with these words, “Now 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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’”
He continues a few verses later, “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”(Matt 2:1-2, 9-11, NKJV)
Contrary to the traditional manager scenes that we see this time of year and contrary to some of the songs that we sing about the birth of Jesus, these particular wise men were not at the inn on the night that Jesus was born. More than likely, they arrived at the house of Joseph and Mary one to two years after the birth of our Savior. It had been a long journey for them, a journey that began with the sighting of a star, His star, while they were in a country east of Jerusalem. No one knows what country they came from, but it is presumed that they resided in Persia, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These wise men were probably astrologers or magi as they are called in some translations, which spent their time observing the heavens and charting the movements of celestial bodies. The long, arduous expedition to Israel was fueled by a two-prong purpose: to worship this King that had been born in the city of David and to give Him gifts.
The wise men from the east were not the first visitors to see this holy child. Actually, they were probably the last to see this precious family before Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee to Egypt because of the impending slaughter of all children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. It was a massacre ordered by jealous Herod trying to kill this newly born king of the Jews. However, the visitation of the wise men is not what makes them unique. Shepherds, and maybe some guests from the inn, saw the child the night He was born. Simeon held Him in his arms at His dedication in the temple eight days after His birth. Anna, a prophetess, saw Him there too that day and spoke of Him to all that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. There were no less than five different angelic visitations to those involved with this child, beginning at His conception. The visit of these wise men from the east was not an exclusive event, but what they did was extraordinary. They brought gifts.
I must confess to you this evening that Christmas with all its traditional trappings has never made me think of Jesus. There is a long list of things that we do this time of the year that have no correlation with the birth of Christ. For example: dragging a tree into the house, tinsel string, ornaments, lights, mistletoe, candy canes, turkey and dressing, black Friday sales, etc. If anything, those previously mentioned things make me want to avoid the traditional celebration of Christmas. I am not saying those things are wrong; but I personally have never seen the connection between the two. Yet one of the most puzzling aspects of our traditional Christmas celebration to me is the part about giving gifts to each other. I understand that certain wise men gave gifts to Jesus, but why do we give gifts to each other? Where does that play into the birth of Jesus? To be honest, what the wise men did does not make any sense, unless you go back almost 500 years before His birth.
In the Old Testament, a Jewish lady named Esther was chosen to be queen by Ahasuerus, a king who ruled over the kingdoms of Persia, Media, and Babylonia. The Bible says his kingdom stretched “from India to Ethiopia.” While she was queen, a plot was formed by Haman, who was a Persian noble, to destroy all Jews in the kingdom. He told the king that the Jews were a threat to his empire and needed to be eradicated. Ahasuerus followed the counsel of wicked Haman and made the plan a law and sealed it with his signet ring. Queen Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, heard of the plot and persuaded his niece to approach the king with the purpose of having the decree changed. Queen Ester requested that all the Jews in the palace city of Shushan fast with her for three days. In short, God intervened and delivered the Jews from the evil scheme of Haman and king Ahasuerus ordered that Haman be killed, and he promoted Mordecai to Haman’s position.
Out of this miracle, the Jewish people created a celebration to remind themselves of what had happened and how they were rescued from certain annihilation. It is called the festival of Purim and it was a commemoration of divine deliverance. Esther 9:20-23 reads, “And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters to all the Jews, near and far, who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, to establish among them that they should celebrate yearly the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar, as the days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor.” (NKJV)
Over four centuries after Mordecai wrote this letter to all the Jews that lived in the empire of King Ahasuerus, a band of wise men, no doubt familiar with Purim and the way in which it was celebrated, traveled from that eastern region of the world that was once the heart of the Persian empire to see a child, a child who would one day become the Savior of the world. When those men finally arrived at Mary and Joseph’s house and saw the toddler, they presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I have read several commentaries and opinions of why those wise men came to Israel while chasing a star and I have come across an equal amount of ideas for the three gifts that were presented and what they meant. But recently, as I read about the festival of Purim, I began to think about the birth of Jesus and I came away with a different view of Christmas. I began to wonder if those wise men saddled their camels, left their native soil and traveled to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the same way that those Jews from bygone centuries had celebrated Purim. After all, they gave away gifts, which was a chief element of the festival that originated in their homeland.
Maybe they came with gifts and gave them away because the hope of deliverance and salvation had finally been born and laid in a lowly manager. Maybe the giving of those three gifts was to celebrate the fact that through the eventual death, resurrection and accession of Jesus, men and women could finally have rest from the enemy of their soul. Maybe, just maybe, our tradition of giving gifts this time of the year, unbeknownst to us, was kindled by some magi honoring an old celebratory custom from ancient Persia.
Like the Jews that created and celebrated Purim, what if this is the month, the one month of the year, when we take a couple of days and turn sorrow into joy, and we transform our mourning into a holiday of feasting and jubilation? What if every gift that is given this time of the year is actually a testimony to God’s ability to save us? I hope that as we sit around the tables, eating too much and laughing too loud this season, we will remember why we do this every year. I pray that while we are giving gifts and opening presents that in the front of our minds we will recall that we are celebrating the birth of the Savior who came to give us rest and save us from sure destruction. Like the festival of Purim and their tradition of gift-giving, Christmas is the time when we give gifts and commemorate the arrival of divine deliverance and redemption into our world. May God bless you this season and may we all have a very merry Christmas.
Written by James C. Marse. Copyright © 2011.