When it comes to the Christmas season, our perception is that of a time when people are filled with cheer, peace, and tend to be in a merry mood. However, the reality reveals that Christmas sadly showcases the inner depression of humanity. Not only does the Christmas season bring out long lines, impatient travelers, and annoyance with family members, we also see that in the Christmas season the number of suicide attempts increases. Additionally, psychiatrists indicate that more people experience depression symptoms around this time. So, with this great joy of Christmas also comes great suffering.
It seems like none in our society is exempt from this suffering. Just last week I read about the story of this teenage girl who was engaged to be married and then found herself pregnant. The whole matter was complicated by the fact that her boyfriend wasn’t the father. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the boyfriend wanted to cancel the wedding and call off the engagement altogether. The boyfriend wanted to do this quietly without humiliating his girlfriend. It seems that the boyfriend went to sleep one night and in his dream, an angel appeared to him and relayed an important message. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear – do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus and he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1: 20-21). Well, I gather by now you recognize the story and how this it began in a somewhat confusing way. We’ve heard this story so many times we tend to filter out the problems and challenges the story presents. We tend to forget from these inauspicious and rather difficult circumstances things got even worse for Joseph and Mary.
Because as the story unfolds at the most uncomfortable stage in a women’s pregnancy, towards the end, there was an untimely royal census from Caesar. Mary and Joseph had to take part in this annoying census and return to Bethlehem just so Rome can proudly count how many subjects were under their authority. This meant that Mary and Joseph had to take a long trip – most likely across mountains and desert-like territory to Bethlehem. Try to picture a pregnant woman in the most painful stage of pregnancy riding on the back of a donkey for a long distance. Finally, they come into that little town of Bethlehem, which is now crowded with all the people who have to travel due to this census. Then, Mary and Joseph discover that the only place from them to stay is some caverness stall – kind of like a makeshift outhouse for animals carved out of a cave. If all of this wasn’t hard enough Mary proceeded to go into labor – and labor back then was without medicine or in this case no assistance whatsoever. In these rather difficult circumstances, Mary was to deliver God in human form. Even after his birth Jesus had to be laid to rest in a little cattle troth designed to feed animals – a manger. They were alone in a strange city surrounded by people they don’t know giving birth to God. Not only that, right after Jesus was born, Joseph had to frantically sneak the family out of Bethlehem because he was tipped off that King Herod wanted to kill the baby. Can you imagine more difficult and dreadful conditions than these in welcoming in the God-man? So, God comes to us in this rather non-glamorous way. Yet this is not the way we usually look at the Christmas season.
We tend to glamorize the Christmas story by portraying the nativity as a rosy scene with gentle shepherds and humble magi. And for obvious reasons we tend to ignore the fact that it was a trying time and that the birth of Jesus resulted in a great and horrible tragedy – the terrible murder of the baby boys in that little town of Bethlehem. Because upon hearing that a new king was born in Bethlehem, King Herod ordered that all male boys under the age of two be executed. So, just as soon as Herod had heard about this little infant king he responded in such a frantic and wicked way. But I would suggest that King Herod may have had a deeper insight into the real meaning of Christmas. Why would the birth of a baby in animal stable in a tiny town threaten this king so much? Herod’s actions show that is was clear to him that he understood the significant reality that this baby was indeed the King of kings – the long expected Messiah that was to be born that night in Bethlehem. Herod felt threatened by this baby king because he had something within him that was very real to fear – that he (the great Herod) needed to make room, humble himself, and bow down to this new king.
History tells us that Herod was anything but humble. He was especially power hungry and so ambitious to establish his rule as the first King of Israel in centuries that nothing would stay in the way of his ambitions. He was probably the cruelest King of Israel. To make matters worse he wasn’t even an Israelite. He was a despised Edomite foreigner that the Israelites wouldn’t recognize as one of their own. He only became king because he received favor from Rome so Caesar appointed Herod to the crown. Herod knew that the Jews detested him. Consequently, he became so paranoid with his rule and suspicious of potential threats to his throne that he actually murdered three of his own sons as well as his mother in law. In fact, Caesar Augustus one said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11). Herod’s death was a prolonged process. He went through a mental madness and experienced convulsions and sores all over his body. He was fearful that no one would mourn his death so he ordered that the day and the hour in which his death was announced an entire village was to be executed so that he would have the re-assurance that somewhere some people would be mourning.
That is the kind of king that responded with such cruelty and tyranny when he heard about Jesus’ birth. We shouldn’t be too surprised in fact, here is the King of kings as a vulnerable infant in the face of an evil pretender king whose wickedness undermined his own claim to authority. So, in the Christmas story we are presented with two kings in stark contrast. In one case you have the pride and power of Herod in a palace, and on the other hand we have humility and peace of Jesus in a stable. Herod wanted to kill others for the benefit of himself, while as we’ll see Jesus wants himself to be killed for the benefit of others. These two kings cannot be any more opposite. In Herod and Jesus, we see the dramatic contest of Pride vs. Humility. Pride says no one tells me what to do – I am the authority of everything. Humility says I will be obedient and follow the will and authority in which I came from (see Hebrews 10:7, 5:8, John 14:31). The prideful King Herod says my people serve me. The humble King Jesus says I serve my people. Indeed, we see that Jesus views his kingship much like a doctor that comes to serve the sick (see Mark 2:17), while Herod views his kingship much like a ruler whose people need to constantly serve him. And we see in the story that Herod is threatened by Jesus’ humility. Herod’s dramatic freak out reveals that pride instinctively knows it will lose to humility. In Jesus’ birth, we see how Mary’s statement is to be fulfilled – that God raises up the humble and tears down the proud (see Luke 1: 51-52).
In the Christmas story the reaction of rage in Herod is contrasted by the reaction of joy in the shepherds. After all, these shepherds went off on their way immediately to worship the new born king. Before we understand why the shepherds were filled with joy, we need to understand the proper picture of who these shepherds are. Obviously, before you can understand why someone is happy, you need to know where they are currently to grasp the context of their happiness. With these shepherds the Christmas story gets intriguing. I suspect that most people think of shepherds in Jesus day as meek, gentle, humble, and trustworthy country boys who are simply taking care of the flock. You might think back in the Old Testament and think doesn’t God appear to shepherds and work with them. After all, Able, David, Moses, and Amos were all shepherds. Many of God’s mediators were shepherds. But God primarily goes to shepherds not because they are good – but because they know they are not good. This is humility. Humility is honestly knowing your illness. GK Chesterton summed up humility by saying, “The smartest person in the insane asylum is the person who knows their insane.” So, what is the insanity of shepherds?
In my research, I realized this picture of shepherds as decent, meek, and mild country boys is simply false. I hate to break it to people, but in those days shepherds were, in fact, considered to be the most deceitful scoundrels no one would trust. Shepherds would often steal others property and animals – which back in those days amounted to stealing another person’s source of income. Everyone knew shepherds were thieves. There was a saying that what a tax collector is in the city, a shepherd is in the country. In fact, there was a law passed that if shepherds were a witness to a crime, they could not give testimony in any binding way. Their testimony was thrown out by the courts because everyone assumed that they were deceitful liars. Shepherds were pretty low in the Jewish social system. Consequently, people avoiding any dealings whatsoever with shepherds in Jewish culture. And yet why is this that God decides that the first people to reveal his Son to are shepherds. You’d think that God would reveal himself to the chief priests, the Levites, the Scribes, those who are pious and powerful in the temple. Or maybe just the run of the mill, the average Joe, but instead God goes to those who have no culture status whatsoever. The reason for not going to the chief priests is because the nature of the chief priests is that of pride. A doctor can’t serve people that think they are perfect and not sick. A doctor can only serve those who know they are sick. Therefore, the shepherds are humbling themselves before Jesus saying we pay tribute to you king – we know we’re wicked and seek you for healing and protection away from our folly. To admit your sickness is easy for people who are humble, but is practically impossible for those who are drenched in pride.
In fact, Matthew reports that the first news of Christmas was “troubling” to people – “When King Herod heard this [the Christmas news], he was greatly troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Now, why would a baby’s birth trouble all of Jerusalem? This implies the vast majority of people were nervous on hearing the news of Jesus birth. Well, we know Jesus is the truth (see John 14:6, 18:37). And when the truth comes to people it will be scary. It would be like someone who knows all your inner thoughts is now approaching you. Of course this would freak you out because it would expose how messed up your soul is. Pride doesn’t like this. The only way a person can confront their inner issues is with humility. Humility says, “Yes, I’m sick and the first thing I’m going to do when the divine doctor comes is to go see him, not run away from him.” The person who thinks like this tends to be rejected by society – because society (even back then) tries to falsely say: “you’re perfect, you’re amazing.”
So, in the story, God goes to those whom the world thinks nothing of. Well, you might not think this is a consistent pattern because after all, doesn’t Jesus also reveal himself to the Three Kings of the Orient. But once again I believe that we have to revise the picture that we have of Christmas on this point too. We are not told in Scripture that there were three. In fact, we are not told that they were kings or wise men either. The correct Greek term used to describe these visitors is “magus” which translates to the English word “magi.” Now, in order to understand who the magi were you’ve got to realize that magi back in Jesus day were actually far worse than the shepherds.
The magi were, in fact, sorcerers and practitioners of the black arts. They were men that worked with astrology, the zodiac, as well as various spells and incantations throughout Persia. Sorcerers of black magic was a common practice in Persia. Calling someone a magi or sorcerer is just a nice way of calling them a demonic wizard. In the Book of Acts, we have two examples of magi. We have Simon (Acts 8:9) and Elymus (Acts 13:8-10, see also 16:16-18). Both of these guys were sorcerers who were hungry for power. In fact, there was a saying back then that if anyone learned anything from the magi they were accursed by God. And here we see these dark wizards humbling themselves before Jesus and bringing gifts to him. Also, the gifts they brought are significant. Giving gifts to Jesus is not some sort of baby shower scene where they are presenting the family with presents for their new arrival. In the ancient world, you didn’t normally give baby gifts to a family that just had a baby. You especially did not give gifts to a king. Because in the ancient world everything you possessed was already claimed to the one you acknowledged as your king. In fact, it was an insult to give gifts to a king because this meant the king lacked something and needed a gift from his subjects to provided what he lacked. So, if the magi were taking gifts to Jesus as the newborn king, it is helpful to clarify they weren’t really bringing gifts at all. In the ancient world, if you did come before someone who you acknowledged as your king you would bring them a payment of tribute; an acknowledgement of his crown rights. This tribute would be an acknowledgement of the fact that he possessed you and all that is yours. In fact, it is a token of submission or surrender that which you acknowledge that he has authority over you. So, the tribute you would present to a king would consist of the tools of your trade or something precious to your very livelihood. In this way you would symbolically express that your whole lifestyle and your whole work is done for you, oh king. By this act you communicated that the king had rightful claim to your property and to your entire lifestyle. When we see this we can understand that there must be something the magi are revealing to us with what they were presenting Jesus. So, what did this gold, frankincense, and myrrh mean?
Well, myrrh was commonly used by magi in performing their magic. They used myrrh to make a special kind of ink in writing their incantations sheets when performing spells. Gold and frankincense were also used by magi in their craft of making spells. Gold and frankincense were often sprinkled by magi on their formula sheets. It gave their spells a kind of mysterious glow and glitter. So, these gifts of the magi simply represent the tools of the trade for these ancient sorcerers. What giving Jesus their tools of the trade reveals is that the magi willingly giving up their demonic lifestyle and surrendered their entire being to Jesus. By the way – this is not the only occurrence in Scripture when someone denounced their demonic wizardry in order to follow Jesus. In Acts 19 we see this scene also played out as black magic practitioners burned their spell making books.
“Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19: 18-19).
It is amazing to consider that these demonic wizards were voluntarily giving up their false, satanic lifestyle and submitting their entire being to the true God – Jesus. In the Christmas story, even the lowly devil worshipers showed up to declare that Jesus was king.
In revealing himself to the lowest of the low in Jewish culture God is telling us that the nobodies matter. And the reason why nobodies matter is because the nobodies truly understand they are flawed. The nobodies view humility as a way to take down their sickness of pride. In the Christmas story all 3 characters understand that Jesus is King. Even Herod knows that Jesus is the king. The difference is in their reaction to this fact. The shepherds and magi reaction to this new king was that of humility – “We need him in order to heal us of our sickness.” However, Herod’s reaction to the new king is that of pride – “I need to destroy him in order to stay in power.” Also, in these three characters we see what pride and humility bring people. Pride brought Herod an intense emotional rage. Why? Because if you want power, you’re always going to be on edge when your power is threatened by others. This emotional panic attack Herod experienced doesn’t happen with humility. Humility doesn’t want power so it isn’t threatened by others who have power. Rather, we see in the shepherds and magi that humility brings people healing and ultimately peace.
Very often we approach Christmas through the lens of a childlike gullibility that everything is great and peaceful. However, quite the contrary – everything was not at first, peaceful. Just as people today experience pain and suffering during Christmas, we see that the in the first Christmas people also experienced pain and suffering. In fact, the way Christmas came to us was through the non-glamorous scene of suffering, unpredictability, and that of humility. Now, this suffering and humility eventually brings us peace. Indeed, Mary & Joseph needed to go through tremendous suffering to eventually experience peace. So, in reflecting on the Christmas story, we now see that suffering and humility eventually trumps convenience and pride and brings us peace. Once we understand the real Christmas story we’ll better appreciate this Christmas season.