Category Archives: Christmas

Why Did the Wise Men Give Gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

by John W. Welch

Little is known about the Wise Men. The Gospel of Matthew says they came from somewhere east of Jerusalem. The early Christian writer Justin Martyr said that they were Jewish men who came from Arabia, southeast of Judea. They may have been among the many Jewish people who were looking for the fulfillment of Israelite prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, such as Daniel’s 490-year prophecy.

Jewish traditions also spoke of temple priests who had gone into exile in Arabia awaiting a chance to return. The Jerusalem Talmud, Tacanit 4.5, mentions priests who had fled from Jerusalem and settled in Arabia around 625 B.C. Other priests may have been expelled by King Herod when he built his own magnificent temple in Jerusalem.

So, it is possible, as Margaret Barker first pointed out in her book Christmas: The Original Story (London: Continuum, 2008), that the Magi came from these priestly groups or from other groups of watchful priests awaiting the coming of the Lord of Holiness. If so, their three gifts could not have been more perfectly suitable, given by priests to their new High Priest.

 

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

The gift of gold would have sparkled like the gold that was required in the Temple. According to scripture, the inner doors, altar, table for the bread of the Presence, lamp stands, bowls, censers, utensils and implements of the Temple and the paneling on the walls of the Holy of Holies were to be made of pure gold or were gold-plated (1 Kings 7:48-50). Gold was incorruptible and did not rust. It was thought to have absorbed and embodied the radiance of the sun. Shiny gold objects reflected radiantly the heavenly glory of the sun.

Frankincense, a resin gathered from trees in south Arabia, provided fragrance in the Temple. The Holiness Code required incense to accompany every sacrifice “offered by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 24:7). Its sweet, billowing smoke was thought to carry prayers up to heaven. It was burned in the Temple to invite and invoke the presence of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:6 prophesied that camels would bring gold and incense from southwestern Arabia, but what about myrrh? Myrrh is another resin, drawn from the life-sustaining sap of another desert tree. It was a key ingredient in preparing the sacred oil that imparted holiness. The recipe for that anointing oil is found in Exodus 30:23-24. It calls for 500 shekel-weight of myrrh, 250 of cinnamon, 250 of calamus, and 500 of cassia to be mixed in a hin (about one gallon) of olive oil. That anointing oil was uniquely used to sanctify the temple, the ark of the covenant, and the temple vessels, menorahs, and altars. Most of all, it was used to anoint and consecrate the High Priest, and it could not be used outside the Temple (Exodus 30:26-33).

The holy myrrh had disappeared from the Holy of Holies and been hidden away in the time of Josiah according to the Babylonian Talmud, Horayoth 12a. It represented Wisdom (Ben Sira 24:15), and because of its preservative qualities it was used in preparing the dead for burial.

But more than that, this myrrh oil was known as the “dew of resurrection,” and it had anointed the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and transformed them into sons of God. One early Christian, Pope Leo the Great, said: “He offers myrrh who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature.” That uniting of divine and human was the mystery of the myrrh oil in the Holy of Holies. Old traditions also spoke about Adam receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh from three angelic messengers, so that he could offer proper sacrifices when cast out of Eden.

By giving Jesus these three essential, holy, and precious gifts, the Wise Men prepared Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), to offer the ultimate sacrifice as the new and everlasting High Priest, bringing eternal light, life, and God’s presence from heaven above to earth below.

 

 

 

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: part 4 of 4, Bethlehem and Beyond

By S. Kent Brown

           Matthew’s Gospel guides us into the events that follow Joseph’s and Mary’s visit to the Jerusalem temple. During the six weeks between Jesus’ birth and Mary’s sacrifice in the temple, Joseph seems to have secured needed housing for his young family, perhaps through family members. For Matthew writes of “the house” (Matthew 2:11). From this point, it seems that Mary and Joseph settle into a rhythm in Bethlehem. Joseph likely plies his considerable skills as an “artisan” who works with wood, stone, and metal in the ongoing temple renovations. This is the proper understanding of the Greek term tektōn which is translated “carpenter” in Matthew 13:55. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 3 of 4, Joseph and Mary

S. Kent Brown           

            As with Mary’s trip to Elisabeth’s home months before, for safety Mary and Joseph travel in the company of others. It is a necessity. They likely go southward through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, then make the long westward climb toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The alternate route runs through the Samaritan hill country, a winding road with a lot of ups and downs. Because the season is evidently early spring, others are arriving in Jerusalem and its environs for Passover. This is a reasonable explanation for the filled inn that Luke writes about (Luke 1:7). In reality, the term translated “inn” can point to a caravanserai-like structure with open stalls that look out into a large, open area where a cooking fire is kept burning. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 2 of 4, Mary

by S. Kent Brown

 The earliest recorded prophecy that points to Mary and her son arises in Isaiah’s book. As he reports, he is commanded to meet Ahaz, the King of Judah, while the King and his party are inspecting “the conduit of the upper pool” on the north side of Jerusalem because this pool and its channel supply water to the temple and the city (Isaiah 7:3). The year is 734 B.C. and the city is surrounded by two hostile armies, one from Syria and one from the northern kingdom Israel. The King and his associates are at risk while outside the city’s walls. And so are Isaiah and his son when they go to meet them. Continue reading

What on Earth are Swaddling Clothes?

by John W. Welch

            As is well known from the often told Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke, Mary wrapped her newborn son “in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). What on earth were swaddling clothes, and why would Luke have bothered to include this detail in his account of the birth of Jesus?

While we may not know for sure exactly what kinds of clothes were used or how they may have looked in Jesus’ case, it seems highly likely that all infants in the ancient Mediterranean world were tightly wrapped in long bands of cloth. So these bands were not “clothes,” like a shirt or pants or pajamas, and they were not just a diaper, but long strips of cloth wrapped all around the baby. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 1 of 4, An Angel Comes to Galilee

S. Kent Brown             

One of the puzzling dimensions of Luke’s story of Mary and Joseph has to do with the presence of families from the south of the country, specifically from Bethlehem, that have located in the north, specifically in the small town of Nazareth. To ask the question another way, What brings the families of Mary and Joseph together more than a hundred miles from their original ancestral lands? When the tax enrollment is enjoined on residents of the country, Joseph travels to Bethlehem, “his own city . . . because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:1–4). Presumably, he still has family and property there, the elements that draw him back. The same situation apparently faces Mary. First, she is a descendant of David, as we learn from the Apostle Paul. That is his meaning when he writes that Jesus “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh [through His mother]” (Romans 1:3; compare Luke 18:38–39; 20:41; Acts 2:30). And David’s family is rooted in Bethlehem. Second, the verb “to be taxed” governs the phrase “with Mary,” indicating that she also has to travel to Bethlehem for the tax enrollment because her family still has ties there (Luke 2:5). Not unlike other women known to reside in Judea a century later, she may well be a joint-owner and joint-inheritor of property in Bethlehem. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part Three of Three

The Birth of John

Luke’s Gospel does not spell out how long Zacharias and Elisabeth wait for the birth of their son following the angel’s announcement. But hints exist that offer an approximate time of when he is born. The first hint is that Jesus is born in the late winter or early spring of the year. This observation arises from Luke’s note that “shepherds [were] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The key lies in the phrase “by night” which is a clear pointer to the lambing season when the adults spend nights with the expectant ewes in their flock to assist with the births of new lambs. At other times of the year, the youthful children in the family are assigned to be with the sheep, as young David is (1 Samuel 16:11). A second indicator has to do with the relative ages of Jesus and his older cousin John. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Elisabeth is about five and a half months pregnant. That is the meaning of “the sixth month” (Luke 1:36). In this light, John’s birth occurs the prior October or perhaps late September. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part Two of Three

 By S. Kent Brown

          Elisabeth

            We don’t know how Zacharias communicates his news to Elisabeth. If she is present in the temple grounds that day for his big moment, which is likely, she will soon learn what has happened to him. If she is home, then the possibilities become more complex. As the angel warns him, he loses his ability to talk (Luke 1:20, 22). In addition, as we learn later in the story, he loses his ability to hear (Luke 1:62). Presuming that Elisabeth is as most other women in her society, she is illiterate. Zacharias may make signs to her, even touching her stomach. Or he may go to a relative or close friend who is literate and to whom he can write a message. Of course, by the time John is born, she knows. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part One of Three

The Angel Comes to the Priest Zacharias

            When Zacharias goes into the temple to offer incense, he is entering the Sanctuary, which is distinct from the larger temple grounds, as indicated by the Greek term naos (in Luke 1:9), which usually points to the Sanctuary (compare Luke 23:45; Revelation 11:2). According to the Mishnah, which is a compilation of Jewish laws dating from the era before A.D. 200, a priest is allowed only once during his lifetime to light the incense. This lighting takes place twice a day at the temple, once in the morning and once about three o’clock in the afternoon in connection with the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices and the times of prayer (1 Chronicles 16:40; Acts 3:1). Because of the large number of priests, a person is selected by the casting of lots. Hence, this occasion is the most important in Zacharias’s long years of service at the temple.

The King James text says that “there appeared unto [Zacharias] an angel” (Luke 1:11). The

Temple of Solomon, model, in Jerusalem

Temple of Solomon, model, in Jerusalem

verb is in the passive and means “an angel was seen [by Zacharias].” There is no sense of vision or dream or divinely imposed distance between the angel and the priest. Zacharias sees the angel in a firsthand, sensory way. Luke writes that the angel stands “on the right side of the altar of incense.” Here he writes from the angel’s point of view. It is the altar’s right side. Exactly in front of the temple’s veil stands the incense altar; to Zacharias’s right, or on the north, as he approaches the altar, stands the table of the shewbread, where the twelve loaves of bread sit; to Zacharias’s left rests the large candelabrum or Menorah. The angel stands between the altar and the Menorah, between the cloud of smoke and the light, symbols of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and of His presence among the Hebrews during the Exodus (Genesis 15:10–11, 17–18; Exodus 13:21–22). Moreover, the angel stands on the south or right side of the altar, the side of promise and blessing. This position characterizes his message to Zacharias. Because of the Israelites’ orientation toward the east—the doors of the sanctuary were on its east side, for instance—the right hand is on the south. If the angel had appeared on the north side of the altar, it would have signaled bad news for Zacharias. Continue reading