As we sang “We Three Kings” during the worship service this past Sunday, I was struck yet again with the human tendency to ‘fill in the blanks’. Here’s what I mean – the biblical record states: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” Nowhere does it number the group at three, but only that there were at least three gifts. It does not call these men kings, although the gifts were of such substance that perhaps only a king could afford them. Finally, they were from the East, more than likely Babylon, not the Orient.
This is not the only area of enhancement. We picture Mary riding from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey even though it is highly unlikely she did. We assume they travelled alone, even though a census was taking place and others in their immediate family were also required to register in the town of their lineage. Our nativity scenes are often set amidst a wooden structure, like a stable, which were not present in the ancient Middle East. Then there is the carol “Away in a Manger” which depicts the little Lord Jesus as docile (‘no crying he makes’) – nice, but I don’t buy it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the embellishments: I have a nativity scene in my living room which has the angel, the shepherds and the Magi all gazing upon the baby Jesus asleep in a small barn-like building, despite the fact that the Bible clearly states that the angels went back up to heaven and the Magi visited the holy family in a house. I don’t mind the embellishments because they magnify the truth, not diminish it. Whether we sing carols of questionable accuracy or decorate our homes with anachronistic statues, the truth is still celebrated – many years ago God demonstrated his great love for us in this: He gave to his creation his one and only son. God wanted everyone to know this marvelously good news, so he told the lowly shepherds (who then told the masses) and the Gentile star-gazers (who then told the political and religious leaders).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NIV)
Christmas is all about ‘filling in the blanks’. Without Christmas, the heavenly ledger recording our right and good behavior would be blank. Without Christmas, the list of all our hopes and dreams would be blank. Without Christmas, the place where our name would appear in the Lamb’s book of life would be blank. But Christmas fills in the blanks: we are given His righteousness, His promises and His salvation. Christmas is about God coming to us as a defenseless child and living among us, sharing with us, dying in place of us and rising before us in order to then return home and intercede for us.
In closing, let me share one final extra-biblical – but still wonderful – expression of the holiday: ‘Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.’