Coming to the Christmas season through the lens of our trials and frustrations this year can allow us to experience the true meaning of Christmas. Typically, our perception of Christmas is a time when people are filled with cheer, peace, and tend to be in a merry mood. However, reality reveals that Christmas sadly showcases the inner struggles of humanity. Not only does Christmas time bring out long lines, impatient travelers, and annoyance with family members, we also witness that in the Christmas season the number of suicide attempts increases. Additionally, psychologists mention that there is a dramatic spike of depression symptoms around this time. Interestingly, with this great joy of Christmas also comes great sorrow.
It seems like none in our society is exempt from this suffering. In the Gospels, we read a story of this teenage girl who was betrothed (i.e. engaged) to be married and then found herself pregnant. The whole matter was complicated by the fact that her husband-to-be wasn’t the biological father. We aren’t surprised to hear that the husband wanted to call off the marriage altogether. He wanted to do this quietly without humiliating his wife. It seems that he 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” (see Matthew 1: 18-21). By now we recognize the story and how it began in an ominous way. We’ve heard this saga so many times we tend to filter out the obstacles within it. From these inauspicious and rather difficult circumstances, things got even worse for Joseph and Mary.
As the story unfolds, at the most uncomfortable stage in a women’s pregnancy, there was an untimely royal census from Caesar. Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem just so the Roman Empire can proudly count how many subjects were under their authority. Consequently, Mary and Joseph had to take a long trip – most likely across mountains and desert-like terrain to Bethlehem. Try to picture a pregnant woman in the most painful phase of pregnancy riding on the back of a donkey for an exhaustive distance. Finally, they come into that little town of Bethlehem, which is now crowded with all the people traveling for the census. They attempt in vain for a room to stay, but everyone denies entry for this pregnant woman and her tired husband because every place was “too full.” Then, Mary and Joseph discover that the only place for them to stay is a makeshift outhouse for animals carved out of a cave. If all of this wasn’t hard enough Mary proceeded to go into labor. Giving birth 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 rather unpleasant cattle troth designed to feed animals (i.e., 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 a more dire picture than this in welcoming in the God-man? Just as He did almost two-thousand years ago, God continuously comes to us in these bleak, non-glamorous moments.
What made the situation worse is upon hearing that a new king was born, King Herod ordered that all male boys under the age of two be executed in Bethlehem. Just as soon as Herod had heard about this infant king he responded in such a frantic and wicked way. Why would the birth of a baby in an animal stable in a tiny town threaten this king so much? Herod’s actions show that it was clear to him that he understood the significant reality that this baby was the King of kings.
The Christmas story is often glamorized in portraying the nativity as a rosy scene with gentle shepherds and humble magi. For obvious reasons, we tend to ignore the fact that it was a strikingly grim time.
History tells us that Herod was anything but humble. He was especially power-hungry and to establish his rule as the first King of Israel 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 in which 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 viciously murdered three of his own sons as well as his mother in law. In fact, Caesar Augustus once said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11).
In the Christmas story, we are presented with two kings that stand in stark contrast. In one case you have the pride and power of Herod in a palace, while on the other hand, you have the humility and peace of Jesus in a stable. Herod wanted to kill others for the profit of himself whereas Jesus wanted himself to be killed for the benefit of others. In Herod and Jesus, we see the dramatic contest of pride vs. humility. Pride announces that 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, Jesus views his kingship much like a doctor that comes to serve the sick (see Mark 2:17), while Herod observes his kingship in which he asserts his dominance and will over the people. The fact that Herod becomes infuriated and intoxicated by his passions when he hears the news of a baby king reveals that Herod is threatened by Jesus’s humility. Herod’s dramatic response to the birth of a baby exposes that his pride instinctively knows it will lose one that is drenched in humility. In Jesus’s 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, Herod’s rage is contrasted by shepherds’ awe and eventual joy. After all, these shepherds immediately went to worship the newborn king. Before we understand why the shepherds were filled with joy, we need to understand the proper picture of who these shepherds are. With the shepherds the Christmas story becomes intriguing. I suspect that most people view shepherds in Jesus’s day as meek, gentle, humble, and trustworthy farm folk who are simply taking care of the flock. You might think back to the Old Testament and think doesn’t God usually appear to shepherds? After all, Able, David, Moses, and Amos were all shepherds. But God primarily goes to shepherds not because they are good – but because they know they are flawed.
This picture of shepherds as decent, mild country boys is slightly convoluted. The shepherds might have been meek and mild, but they were also portrayed as deceitful scoundrels no one would trust. In fact, Biblical scholar, Randy Alcorn comments, “In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.”
People unfairly railed against shepherds because the original empire in the Old Testament, Egypt, viewed shepherds as worthless. Joseph matter-of-factly- informed his brothers, “Every shepherd is detestable to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34). Unfortunately, this negative connotation against shepherds stayed with them throughout the Old Testament. 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 status. Consequently, people avoiding any dealings whatsoever with shepherds in Jewish culture. And yet why is it that God decides that the first people he will reveal his Son to are the lowly shepherds.
Notice God did not deliver the news of Jesus’s birth directly to the chief priests. Why not? Because they were in a state of pride. Recall, that the chief priests and Pharisees thought they were perfect. It is a historical fact that the Pharisees refused to receive Sacramental baptism (see Luke 7:29-30). Why? Because you don’t need to take a bath if you think you’re not dirty. The Pharisees felt they did not have sin, hence, no sacramental cleansing was necessary for them.
However, a doctor can’t serve people that think they are perfect. A doctor can only serve those who know they are sick. Therefore, the shepherds are humble enough to pay tribute to Jesus and not themselves. They are big enough to admit they are flawed and come to the new king for healing and protection from their folly. To admit your sickness is easy for people who are humble but is practically impossible for those who are saturated in pride.
What makes the Christmas news intriguing is that Matthew reports that the news of Christ coming was disturbing to hear. “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 verse insinuates that the vast majority of people were nervous about hearing the news of Jesus’s birth. The answer lies in how people view themselves in relation to the newly announced Divine doctor. Jesus defined himself as the truth (see John 14:6, 18:37). When the truth doctor approaches unrepentant sinners, it will naturally be an agitating experience for them. It would be akin to someone who knows all your inner thoughts is now approaching you. Of course, this would disrupt the ardent, prideful soul because it would expose their imperfect nature. To confront one’s inner issues one must obtain 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.”
In the Christmas story, God goes to those who are humble and those 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 we have of Christmas on this point too. We are not told in Scripture 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.” The magi were these mysterious figures “from the east.”
Smith’s Bible Dictionary states, “The Magi took their places among “the astrologers and star gazers and monthly prognosticators.” The magi studied the stars and revered the cosmos as their god. They were classic pagans in the sense that they worshiped creation rather than the creator.
In his book, Joy to the World, Scott Hahn notes that the magi “were foreigners and idolaters who were ignorant and contemptuous of Israel’s ways and Israel’s God. They represented the kind of contamination the [Divine] law was designed to keep out.”
While eastern sages in Persia studied the stars they also viewed the cosmos as a master of divine nature. In this, the magi didn’t merely dabble in astrology, they worshiped the stars as a cosmic divinity. What’s more, is that we can place these ancient magi on par with sorcerers and practitioners of the black arts in they that worked with various spells and incantations. Sorcerers of black magic was a common practice in Persia. Even modern magicians view the word “magi” as the fulfillment of the concept of “magic.” As Father Longenecker articulates, “The word ‘magician’ comes from the Persian “magus” the name of the venerable sect of the occult, astrologically adept wizards who were Nebuchadnezzar’s necromancers and Cyrus’ stargazers.”
Calling someone a magi or sorcerer is just a nice way of calling them a demonic wizard. The Book of Acts provides some 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. Yet, here we see these corrupt figures humbling themselves before Jesus and bringing gifts to him.
The gifts the magi delivered to Jesus remains covertly significant. Our modern eyes tend to view this gift-giving scene similar to a baby shower experience. Unlike our modern view, in the ancient world, you didn’t normally give baby gifts to a family for their new arrival. 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. Therefore, 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. This payment would acts as a recognition that the king’s crown rights possessed you and all that is yours. Therefore, the tribute you would present to a king would consist of something precious to your vocation and very livelihood. In this way, you would symbolically express that your whole lifestyle and your whole work is given to the king. When we see this, we can grasp that there must be something the magi are revealing in presenting Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
As Theologian Scott Hahn commented, “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 sprinkled by magi on their formula sheets. It gave their spells a mysterious glow and glitter. Therefore, these gifts of the magi simply represent the tools of the trade for these ancient sorcerers. By giving Jesus the tools of their work, it reveals that the magi were dramatically giving up their pagan lifestyle and surrendered their entire being to serving Jesus.
It is amazing to consider that these men were voluntarily giving up their pagan lifestyle and submitting their entire being to the true God – Jesus.
In revealing Himself to the lowest of the low in Jewish culture God is telling us that the nobodies matter. The nobodies represent the ones who seem forgotten and useless to the powerful elites of the world. The nobodies know they aren’t flawless whereas the elites assume they are in a state of perfection. While the world might think little of the flawed nobodies, their humility allows them to openly receive the King of kings. In the Christmas story, all three 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 to heal us.” However, Herod’s reaction to the new king is that of pride – “I need to destroy him so I can stay in power.” Pride showcases a debasing picture where one is miserable, strident, and bitter of any potential threat to their power. 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 in viewing a serene, pleasant picture. However, quite the contrary – everything was not at first peaceful. Just as people today experience pain and suffering during Christmas, we see that in the first Christmas the main characters also experienced anguish. In fact, the way Christmas came to us was through an image of distress, unpredictability, and that of humility. Now, this suffering and humility eventually bring us peace. Indeed, Mary and Joseph needed to go through tremendous misery to eventually experience peace. So, in reflecting on the Christmas story, we now see that suffering and humility eventually trumps convenience and pride.
Once we understand the real Christmas story we’ll better appreciate this Christmas season.