By TOM MAY
Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a five-part series from Tom May. Read a new column each day through Dec. 26.
This Christmas season, we are looking at two verses from the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus. The verses focus on a group of political and religious leaders who followed a star to meet the newly born child in Bethlehem. As they followed the start to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying, these two verses from the Bible describe the scene.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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 and of incense and of myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11 NIV).
Today we will look at the word “gifts” in hopes that we will learn this season what it means to be truly wise.
Have you completed buying all of your gifts for Christmas? According to America’s Research Group, about 31 percent of us were finished with at least 90 percent of our shopping by Dec. 12. According to the report, people are buying more focused, less spontaneously and are sticking to a budget this year. The majority of the people who are not finished are purposely waiting with the hopes of snagging some superb bargains.
If you are already finished shopping, what did you buy?
According to Amazon.com, these are the top selling gifts in each of the following categories: Cards Against Humanity: A Party Game for Horrible People — toys and games (I am guessing there is a whole new column that can be written about this game!); “Despicable Me 2”: Blu-Ray edition — movies; Kindle Fire — electronics; “Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 8” — books; “Call of Duty: Ghosts” — video games; and “Wrapped in Red,” Kelly Clarkson — music.
But more than likely, you also have purchased gift cards. Last year, the National Retail Federation estimated that nearly 58 percent of shoppers said they would like to receive a gift card. As a share of holiday spending last year, the NRF found that 80 percent of people bought gift cards, up from 77 percent in 2010. The survey discovered that the expected average spent on gift cards will reach a 10-year high of $156.86. Rolling up that data, NRF forecasts total spending on gift cards will reach $28.8 billion this year.
Let’s think for a moment about the first Christmas gift-givers. The Three Kings, or Magi, are mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew. Few details are given about these men in the Bible, and most of our ideas about them actually come from tradition or speculation. Scripture does not say how many wise men there were, but it is generally assumed three, since they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Three Kings recognized Jesus Christ as the Messiah while he was still a child, and traveled thousands of miles to worship him. They doggedly followed a star which led them to Jesus.
By the time they met Jesus, he was in a house and was a child, not an infant, implying they arrived a year or more after his birth. In a very real sense, their gifts symbolize Christ’s identity and mission. God honored the wise men by warning them in a dream to go home by another route and not to report back to King Herod who would have surely put them to death.
Not a gift card, the first gift mentioned was gold. Gold was the usual offering presented to kings by their subjects, or those wanting to pay respect. When the wise men presented gold, they were honoring Jesus with the very best they possessed, and they also were recognizing that Jesus was king. In ancient times, only royalty was allowed to possess gold.
Frankincense was a very costly and fragrant gum distilled from a tree. The process resulted in an incense that burned easily and created much smoke. It was used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. It also was used as medicine and as perfume. It was the task of the priest to offer pleasant aromas to God in worship through the burning of sacrifices.
While frankincense represents sweetness, myrrh represents bitterness. Myrrh is an aromatic gum and is obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. When it was burned, it created a harsh fire, producing a bitter aroma with a smoke that would inflame the eyes. In Jesus’ time, it was used chiefly in embalming the dead (John 19:39).
Symbolically, the bitterness of the myrrh also represented the work of a prophet. The Old Testament often describes the words from God as bitter in the mouth of the prophet. Today, as 2,000 years ago, not everyone is willing to accept the words of Jesus the prophet.
This Christmas, as you wrap all of your perfect gifts for each individual, be challenged to give one more gift — a gift that represents the true meaning of the season in your life. Perhaps it should go to your favorite charity. Maybe you know a father up the street who is out of work.
Show true wisdom this holiday by giving in a godly way.
— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.