It is time again for Christmas. That holiday is about trees, gifts, big family gatherings, meals, and traveling to see those whom we may not see all year. What is Christmas about? Let’s look at some of the traditions and see if we can find a pathway to better understanding.
The idea of giving someone gifts is not necessarily a Christmas tradition. Celebrations, whether personal or seasonal, have included gift-giving as part of their traditions for thousands of years. The first “Christmas Gifts” were given shortly after Jesus’ birth, the first Christmas. The Greek word magoi, correctly translated as “Magi” (Matthew 2:1), is a plural proper noun referring to people of a specific religious group that existed in the Ancient Near East, most specifically the area of ancient Media and Persia. Magi were astronomers, and the “star” they saw was a series of celestial events, including stars, planets, and conjunctions in retrograde, especially involving the “king planet” Jupiter. Some of the Magi were looking for a Messiah who would conquer darkness and restore justice in the world. The Bible does not tell us how many Magi came to see Jesus. All we know is that there were three gifts.
(Matthew 2:11)1NIV New International Version Translations – “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.”
Gold for a King – Gold is rare, valuable, and hard to get. Part of its value is that it does not rust or corrode. It lasts forever. Both the Ark of the Covenant and the Jewish Temple were loaded with gold (Exodus 25). The child Jesus was to be the newborn King, the Messiah meant to rule forever!
Frankincense for a High Priest – The high priest of Israel burned incense in the temple on the Day of Atonement. The smoke generated by incense was intended to fill the Holy of Holies and hide God who dwelt on the mercy seat between the cherubim (Ark of the Covenant). If the high priest was exposed to the presence of God, he would die. Even the formulation of the incense had to be exact (Exodus 30:34). The child Jesus was to be the new High Priest.
Myrrh for a Sacrifice – The name Mary has the word myrrh as its root. When Mary presented Jesus at the temple, Simeon prophesies over Jesus and tells Mary that a sword will pierce her own heart as well. Myrrh reveals that our King and Priest, who is God forever, was somehow also a mortal man. His sacrifice upon the Cross and death in the place of His people would provide us access to eternal life.
The question is, “Does this mean anything to you?”
The Christmas Tree
Decorating houses with trees held different cultural meanings throughout history.
Roman culture – Evergreen trees symbolized light. Romans decorated their houses and temples with evergreen trees to mark the celebration of Saturnalia. It was a festival to honor their pagan god of agriculture, Saturn.
Greek culture – Coniferous pine was considered sacred in the world of vegetation. Greeks decorated their pines with bells and silver adornments. They even placed offerings under the tree as sacrifices to deities.
Japanese and Chinese culture – Cypress and pine trees are considered sacred and symbolize longevity and immortality in their cultures. The wood of these trees is used for building holy structures and temples.
German culture – In 16th century Germany, it is believed that the first known Christmas Tree was cut and decorated by a man named Martin Luther. He had six children named Elizabeth, Martin, Paul, Hans, Margaret, and Magdalene. One day, Martin Luther cut down an evergreen tree growing near his home. He bought it inside to bring some of its beauty and fight the darkness and bleakness of winter. With this evergreen tree standing tall in his house, Martin Luther compared the evergreen tree to his family’s faith in Jesus. He explained to his children that the tree remains green even in winter, just like their faith in Jesus. It remains green even in times of trouble and despair, just like their faith stays alive in Jesus in times of hardship and sorrow.
(Isaiah 40:31) – “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
The question is whether what Martin Luther thought, the same Martin Luther who brought about the Protestant Reformation, matters to you too.
The Star of Bethlehem was a very real occurrence, provable by science. It was as real as the birth of our Savior, Jesus! What Is the Significance of the Star of Bethlehem? Stellarium (stellarium.org) is a free open-source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope. https://stellarium-web.org/p/observations link lets you view the sky by date over the Internet. Software of this type demonstrates the precision within our universe. God, at the moment of Creation, put in place the very constellations that would bring the Wise men to Bethlehem, the very circumstances of stellar retrograde that would form a bright star in the western skies to guide the Magi. The Star of Bethlehem reminds us that the gospel message is for everyone. God announced His Son’s birth to the world at creation, to show His love for all of humanity, and His desire for all to know Him. Do you care to know Him even better this Christmas?
(Matthew 2:2) – “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.”
The Shepherds and the Sheep
Temple sheep were being raised for the Temple at Migdal Eder. This temple was located about a mile from Bethlehem itself. The shepherds in the Christmas story would have raised and tended to these sheep in the hills near Bethlehem. The value of these specific sheep, the shepherd’s duties, would have included protecting them from theft and injury. Only the unblemished sheep would be considered suitable for sacrificial purposes. Tradition has it that because those shepherds were raising Levitical sheep for the nearby temple, their responsibility of providing the “lambs without blemish” would have had special care from their birth. The selected lambs would have been wrapped in ribbons of cloth at birth to protect them from injury. The process was called swaddling. It was also customary during those times to wrap newborn infants in the same way and hence, the term “swaddling clothes” referred to the wrappings or protection for newborns. The shepherds would have also known of Micah’s prophecy, they would have known about the purpose of the Messiah, the Messianic Hope coming from the city of David. (See Lostpine’s Study: Thanks to the Shepherds of the World) The question is whether this helps you focus on what the holiday is really about.
Why would the Messiah, the King Jesus, allow Himself to be born in such lowly circumstances? The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was with God when the universe was created. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus participated in the creation of everything, including humankind. Jesus started out and always wanted to maintain a relationship with His creation. He loves us! Humanity, however, abused the relationship and rebelled. The apple debacle removed humanity from both Jesus and God’s companionship. God and Jesus, however, never stopped loving us. Our Bible tells us that the blood of an unblemished lamb was sacrificed over and over by the Israelites to obtain forgiveness. Unfortunately, it offered only temporary forgiveness. Humanity loves to sin! Jesus, the creator of the universe, humbly came to earth to take the place of the lamb, shedding His blood once and for all time. The question is does it even matter to anyone anymore? It still matters to God and Jesus!
(John 3:16) – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Merry Christmas from Lostpine.com
- Do you celebrate Christ or Christmas?
- Ideas to Explore: Through church services, special offerings, helping others who are in need, gift sharing with the poor, family? How do you celebrate Christ?
- Do you have traditions like a tree, or a nativity scene set up somewhere, do you share presents?
- Ideas to Explore: Are the traditions you have things that reinforce Christ’s mission on earth?
- Do people see your gifts as something Christ would love to receive?
- Ideas to Explore: For children, have you thought about gifts that tell the Christmas Story? For young adults, do your gifts prepare them for serving our God? For adults, will your gifts strengthen their hope and faith in our world? For seniors, will your gifts fill them with the reassurance that only God can give?
- Do you celebrate Christmas as the end of the calendar year or as the beginning of humanity’s hope?
- Ideas to Explore: Too many people view Christmas as a time of labor and expense. It is Jesus’ birthday!
- 1NIV New International Version Translations