SANTA CLAUS AND THE WISE MEN by Bob Beck December 27, 2015
I stand before you dressed as Santa Claus – what does that really have to do with CHRIST-mass? Well, today I will give you my poor opinion….
DISCLAIMER – I am not trained as a pastor. I have not been to any seminary or other liturgical training, so I will speak from my own study and what I believe. I have heard that a proper sermon must have three points – I started out with three points but over the past few weeks a fourth on has wormed it’s way in, so please bear with me.
Joke I am following June’s practice of offering a joke from the choir. ANY SOUTHERNERS HERE TODAY? For you southerners I apologize for my joke. I have spent some time stationed in the south, so have heard Southern-speak. In Southern-speak some words don’t sound like we think they should – oil sounds like all (I need some all for my car) fire sounds like far. I want you to remember that…
In a small southern town there was a Nativity Scene showing that great skill and talent had gone into creating it. But one small feature seemed out of place. The wise men were each wearing a firemen’s helmet. Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, I left.
At a Quikie Mart on the edge of town, I asked the lady behind the counter about the fireman’s helmets. She exploded with laughter yelling at me, “Ain’t you never read the Bible?” I assured her that I had read much of it, but simply couldn’t recall anything about firemen in the birth of Christ.
She then replied, “them wise men came from afar.”
As an aside, it’s not from the book of Mathew, it is from the song “We Three Kings.”
OK, The wise men (or Magi) and Santa Claus
“Who were the magi?” One of the most compelling answers, recently translated into English by Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, is the so-called Revelation of the Magi, an apocryphal account of the traditional Christmas story that purports to have been written by the magi themselves.
The account is preserved in an eighth-century C.E. Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library, although Brent Landau believes the earliest versions of the text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was composed. Written in the first person, the Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi, their miraculous encounter with the luminous star and their equally miraculous journey to Bethlehem to worship the child. The magi then return home and preach the Christian faith to their brethren, ultimately being baptized by the apostle Thomas.
According to Brent Landau, this dramatic account not only answers the question “Who were the magi?” but also provides details about how many they were, where they came from and their mysterious encounter with the star that led them to Bethlehem. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are not just three magi, as often depicted in early Christian art (actually, Matthew does not tell us how many there were), nor are they Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians, as other early traditions held. Rather from Brent Landau’s translation it is clear the magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group—numbering as few as 12 and as many as several score—of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form.”
When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east.
More familiar traditions indicate that they were Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians, men of learning and of science, of respected position within their culture.
St. Nicholas (whom our modern Santa Claus is modeled after) lived in the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.
So why do I bring these together? What unites them? I offer these for your consideration:
1 – Gift giving
2 – The journey
3 – They were people of privilege
4 – Not of God’s chosen people
So, number one – gift giving
In a movie by Max Lucado, called “Jacob’s Gift” I found a quote that fits this topic: “A gift to one of God’s children is a gift to God.”
What gift do I remember from my boy-hood? What personal gift to me stands out more than any other? One year, before I started grade school, I received a crocheted Scotty dog, black in color, made by my mother. I cannot remember if I received any other gift that year, or if we were hard up for money at that time, but I do remember that Scotty dog that Mon made for me.
According to the Bible, the Wise Men, the Magi, brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to this young child. These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.
Gold, to recognize royalty
Frankincense was used in the temple to carry prayers to God
Myrrh was mixed with wine to relieve pain
Gold was given to this child representing Jesus’ kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. Gifts for a king, gifts for a child.
I see the connection with St. Nicholas in his generosity, his gift giving, his love for little children.
So, today, what gift would we bring to honor the heavenly king?
How should we be priests to our community?
How should we ease the pain of the world?
2- the journey
The Magi took a long journey. Each of us is on a journey. ‘nuf said. See how I shortened my four points to three?
3- people of privilege
The Magi were respected scholars, the scientists of their day, and probably had a certain amount of wealth, either by sponsors or family fortune. So they would be considered people of privilege, rather than those that were just getting by, like Joseph, Jesus’ “father,” undoubtedly was. The Galilean region, where Joseph was from, could be considered the wrong side of the tracks. It was a much poorer area, remote from the relative prosperity of Jerusalem. I remind you that Nathanael cried “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” when Philip first told him about Jesus as quoted in John 1:46.
St. Nicholas was also from a wealthy family, and was recognized as one of the privileged people. I also have been privileged. I have been privileged to be chosen by God, so have you, which leads me to my fourth point.
Number 4 – Not of God’s chosen people
The Wise men were not Hebrew, they were not of Abraham’s line – they were not of the chosen people. And yet they read the signs and had the understanding that a king was being born. Not a king like those that ruled the nations at that time, but more than a king, a king for all people, not just the Jews.
St. Paul was given the mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentile, to the non-Jews, throughout the known world. At that time this included the near east, southern Europe and Africa. Paul managed to cover much of south-eastern Europe and the north-western near East. His message included that those Gentiles who believed, although not Jews, were adopted into the chosen family of God. They were the wild olive shoots that were grafted onto the cultivated olive tree. St. Nicholas’ family was one of those Greek families that had been grafted into the olive tree of the chosen people, as a result of St. Paul’s work.
We, you and I, have also been grafted into that olive tree.
We have been adopted, grafted into that cultured olive tree – rather than being born into the family of God’s “chosen people.” God picked us out and choose to adopt us. That is the GIFT that each of us has received at some time in our lives. This gift may have been given to us by our parents, or a close friend. It may have been given by a pastor or an evangelist. The seed of this gift may have been lost in our memory, as it slowly grew and waited for something that watered it and allowed it to blossom. It may have been a gift that was given, then laid down and forgotten, only to be found again, when the time was right in our life. But it was a gift, a Christmas gift, a Crist-mass gift, that was given to you. I challenge each of you to share that Christmas gift. Tell someone about that gift – that gift that God gave to you out of His love for you. Tell someone about the LOVE of CHRIST-MASS.
Just… with apologies to Nike.. Just… Just Share It!
Bob Beck, Lay Leader