Saturday, November 18, 2006

What would Jesus want for Christmas?

Ah, the Christmas season. The decorations go up, the presents get wrapped, people are in a mad frenzy to get everything done. We eat too much, stay up late, hope for snow. The house smells of cinnamon and pumpkin pie and the stores start early with Christmas carols and one can't help whistling or humming or singing along. Such a happy, joyful season, isn't it?

But amid those hoped-for happy feelings there lies the stress of shopping and wish lists and trying to please everyone. We agonize over what presents to buy each person and most often, instead of putting much thought into them, we simply ask them what they want and we buy it. There is little surprise, and, often the gifts are forgotten within weeks, if not days. Do you remember what you bought or were given three years ago? I didn't think so.

So why do we give these gifts that do not last? Well, because it's Jesus' birthday! We give gifts because the wise men gave him gifts! Right? That's what I've always heard, anyway. But something doesn't sit right with me about this explanation. Let's take a look at the Bible.

In the four gospels, Jesus' birth is mentioned in only two of them: Matthew and Luke. Of those two, it is only Matthew that mentions the wise men. Matthew 2:1-12 reads as follows:

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

One of the first things we notice is that nobody knows where exactly Jesus is, only that the messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. The wise men are told to "search diligently" for the child. Secondly, we later see in verse 16 that Herod has all children aged two and under killed. From this we can see that the wise men probably did not arrive on the day of Jesus' birth (which probably wasn't anywhere near December 25th anyway, but that's a different story).

When the wise men enter the house (not a stable, mind you; that is in Luke's gospel) they do give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). We also have no idea how many wise men there are--only that they give three gifts.

So, from this text on Jesus' birth, we see that Jesus was given three gifts, all unasked for. But what do we do on Christmas? We make out wish lists. We buy people all kinds of gifts, more and more and more, not just three. All "in honor of Jesus' birthday". But is it really? How does it honor Jesus? If we give gifts because the wise men did, then wouldn't it make more sense to maybe give gifts to the same person they gave them to? What would Jesus want for Christmas? Something tells me he doesn't have an wish list like I do. What did he ask for from people? I can't really find anything.

What did he give to people? He gave gifts of healing, of comfort, of hope. But he didn't limit it to one day of the year; it was year-round work for him.

So I ask you: why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on giving presents on one day of the year when the basis for it is so slim? We Christians are just as guilty of buying into the materialistic mentality of the "Christmas season" as anyone, even though we like to satisfy ourselves by saying that it is about Jesus. Is that what Jesus would want for Christmas?


Kevin O'Brien said...

Yes, we are far too materialistic, and it's a sin I struggle to give up.

The song "We Three Kings" gives a deeper meaning to the gifts of the Magi:

"Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again ..."

"Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity night ..."

"Myhrr is mine, its bitter perfume,
Breahtes a life of gathering gloom ..."

Gold = Christ as King
Incense = Christ as God
Myhrr = Christ as Sacrifice

This is reiterated in the final verse:

"Heavenly host, behold Him, arise,
King and God and Sacrifice ..."

Kevin O'Brien said...

Correction above: "Incense owns a deity nigh" not night