As you read this letter, Jani and I will have pulled out boxes of Christmas decorations from their attic home, launching a multi-day process of “decking the halls” for Advent. We love this annual ritual even though it takes energy, creativity, patience, and more than a few cups of rich, foamy eggnog!
I especially look forward to unpacking our two nativity scenes. One is a delicate wooden crèche, with tiny figures shaped on a lathe, which we acquired when traveling through “Luther Country” in Germany. The other is from France, and contains a dozen figurines called “santons.” In addition to the holy family, the shepherds, the wise men, and the stable animals, fifty-five different santons are available that depict men and women from literally every walk of life. I like to believe these beautiful terra cotta figurines represent the invitation to every nation and people to come to worship the Christ Child. My cynical side suspects someone came up with a brilliant marketing scheme to sell a ton of crafts, but perhaps I just need another mug of eggnog!
Without a doubt, my favorite characters around the manger scene are the Magi. It’s not because I have a certain fondness for Persian magicians, as they most likely were. It’s not even because I thought the kids who played the wise men in our Sunday School Christmas programs always had the coolest costumes, though they certainly did.
No, I’m drawn to the Magi because they are Gentiles, non-Jewish seekers of the Jewish Messiah. If pagan Persian priests (and astrologers, at that!) are welcome at the manger to worship Jesus, then there is a spot for me, too. Indeed, there is a place for any of us regardless of our culture, our ethnicity, or our pedigree if we come to worship him in faith.
I also admire the Magi for their boldness and courage. They march into Jerusalem unintimidated by a paranoid schizophrenic king like Herod. Of course, King Herod the Great is all sugar and syrup to them because he intends to bend them to his will. But they are mysteriously noncommittal, continuing on their journey oblivious to the consternation ignited in Jerusalem.
But mostly, I marvel at their humble faith. When they enter the house where the holy family is now living, these noble wise men, these courageous “Kings from the Orient,” are contrite and generous. They bow before the Child who truly is the King of the Jews, showing a humility and deference they refused the mighty Herod. And when they present their beautiful, precious gifts, they are, I believe, expressing incredible faith.
My Favorite Christmas Gift
Several years ago Jani gave me a Christmas gift that I cherish above any other. It is a replica set of the three gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold consists of gold flecks floating in a sealed, liquid-filled crystal globe. The label says the gold is 23 karat, but I suspect the glass makes them look larger than they really are. The frankincense, a pleasant-smelling white sap, fills a small jar with its crystals. And the myrrh, a darker crystallized sap, emits a more subtle fragrance when the jar is opened. While these three tokens are pale representations of the original gifts of the Magi, they occupy a place of honor in our home every holiday season.
3 Gifts of the Magi
The Magi’s three gifts have significant symbolic meanings beyond Christ’s Advent. Very likely, they represent the three “offices” of Jesus: prophet, priest, and king. The gold, a metal so precious only a king would own much of it, is a sign of royalty in the ancient world and thus depicts Jesus as the king who will reign forever on David’s throne. Frankincense, the key ingredient for incense offered only in the temple, suggests Jesus is our perfect high priest, a priest, Hebrews tells us, after the order of Melchizedek. Myrrh is often used for burial and denotes Jesus as the prophet who will die to fulfill his mission, as he himself foretold.
But as wonderful as these spiritual meanings are, I like to think that the Magi were men of common sense who gave these gifts for practical reasons. The gold would enable a poor family like Joseph’s to flee to Egypt, to set up a carpentry shop in Nazareth, and to provide for this child on his journey to maturity. Frankincense was useful for airing out a stale family room and freshening bedroom linens. Myrrh, pulverized into a salve, had deodorizing and medicinal properties eminently useful to a young family raising a baby boy in diapers!
So, is gift-giving on your mind this Christmas? Congratulations! Remember, the gifts of the Magi remind us that Jesus is our prophet, our priest, and our king. But also be mindful that they were gifts of material value, too, undoubtedly used by Mary and Joseph to make their home a delightful place for the Son of God to grow from boyhood to manhood.
The Magi are not the only gift-givers, of course. Advent marks the moment when God himself gave the world the greatest gift of all time. “For God so loved the world,” John tells us, “that he gave his one and only son; that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
As Multnomah's President
As Multnomah’s president, I am grateful for another gift: the blessing this institution is to hundreds of students presently studying here and thousands of alumni living and proclaiming the good news of “peace on earth” literally around the world. Multnomah has been such a gift for nearly seventy-five years. I pray it will continue its remarkable impact for a hundred more!
Finally, you are a gift to us. Many of you have offered the gifts of your prayers, your hard work, your encouragement, and, yes, your financial stewardship. May you exalt the living Christ in all you do and say this Christmas season.
Grateful for the Child, who received the original gifts of the Magi,