This Christmas: Presents or Presence?


A Christmas Meditation

Some theologians point out a paradoxical truth regarding the first Christmas: while we tend to think many were aware of what was happening that first Christmas and were there to see it, from gospel descriptions it seems not many people knew what was happening. So few celebrated or worshipped during that first Christmas. Think about it. Besides Mary and Joseph and the heavenly hosts who told the shepherds, who was aware that the King of kings was being born as a baby in Bethlehem that first Christmas? You have the shepherds, Anna and  Simeon (who don’t see him until his presentation at the temple Luke 2.21,27), and the wisemen. And you can argue that since by the time the Magi arrive the Messiah was no longer an infant (βρεφος brephos Luke 2.12 cf. Luke 1.41) but a young child (παιδιον paidion Matt 2.8), they probably weren’t there the first Christmas either. They came later.

The time of the arrival of the Magi is clear because apart from the word for “child” that the apostle Matthew uses, the gospel states that the Magi arrived “after” the birth of Jesus. (Matt 2.1) How long after? Well, the time of their arrival can be approximated from the age of the children Herod had killed when he discovered he’d been outwitted by the Magi. Herod killed children aged two and under “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matt 2.16)  If, as the first century historian Philo and the 5th century BC Greek History Herodotus believed, the Magi were wise men from Persia, they had a long, time consuming  trip to make. And if (as suggested in the 2005 movie “The Nativity Story“) Herod added a year to the age range of children to search for to insure the newborn king didn’t escape his net, that would place the arrival of the wise men a few months to a year after the birth of the messiah.  So apparently the Messiah was born some time before the Magi arrived. The Magi weren’t at the manger for the first Christmas.

So getting back to our list of people aware of what was happening during the first Christmas, besides angels, you have Mary and Joseph, Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36-38) and Simeon (Luke 2:25-34) (at the temple),  the shepherds (Luke 2.8-15, 20) (at the manger) and perhaps the people the shepherds told (Luke 2.17-18). This is a rather short list. Notably missing are the Jewish teachers of the law and the (Jewish) wise men.

I think we can excuse the Jewish wise men for missing the star. Though a star is mentioned in a prophecy of the Messiah (Num 24.17), the details of identifying it are not given. The meaning of the star of Bethlehem, I believe, was only determined by the wise men of the east through extra-biblical learning and astronomical observation. [1]

It can be argued that the date of the arrival of the Messiah can be calculated [2] so perhaps the Jewish leaders could have been aware of the “when”. They were quite aware of the “where” the Messiah would be born because they correctly told Herod where it would be (Matt 2.4-6). So given they knew the place and, arguably, could have known the time, you’d think for an event as important as the arrival of the promised one, the Messiah, they’d be aware, watching and waiting. But no.

But it seems God chose not to reveal what was happening to the “wise and the learned” but only to the “little children” (Matt 11.25). Given that the prophecy would have been hard to decipher at the time it was given and even up to the birth of Jesus, it is understandable why the Jewish leaders didn’t know when the appointed time for the birth was. But what about the today? Do we have a better understanding? The gospel has spread far and wide and Christmas is celebrated around the world. But are today’s religious leaders (and we ourselves) celebrating “the reason for the season” or, like most of the world, have we forgotten that which should not be forgotten and turned aside to worldly celebrations and concerns about giving and receiving gifts that have nothing to do with the arrival of the King of creation? Have we so focused on presents that we have neglected the arrival of the presence of the Lord in the baby in the manger?

While reading through what I like to call the sermons by the Jordan, the instructions God gave to Israel through Moses before they went into the promised land as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, I was struck by many statements that stood out to me during this Advent season, like Christmas bells ringing on Christmas day. Statements about being in the presence of the Lord and appearing before the Lord. Isn’t the presence of the Lord one of the main things we remember about that first Christmas? Yet the Israelites were blessed with the presence of the Lord in their very midst, as he reminded them again and again.

For instance, regarding going to the temple for the various celebrations, God says:

“There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you.”
(Deut 12.7)

And regarding the three required feasts God tells them:

“Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose… No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed:
(Deut 16.16)

The Israelites were blessed to have the very presence of the Lord in their midst. Why is Christmas so much more wonderful? Because, for the Israelites, God’s presence was manifested as the Shekinah glory shown in various ways: the pillar of cloud while departing from Egypt (Ex 12.21), or the cloud  over the tent of meeting in the wilderness (Ex 40.34-35) being among them. In Jesus, God took bodily form, for in Jesus, “…all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2.9). Jesus is someone we could see, hear and touch as the apostle John reminds us. (1 John 1.1)

Yet, though the Israelites had the presence of God, they had to be reminded not to stray since they were prone to forget and wander from the Lord. Knowing their tendency to forget and wander off, God warned them of the harsh punishment they would face if they ever forgot God and all he did for them:

“If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.
(Deut 8.19)

It reminded me how, at the first Christmas, those to whom God revealed what was happening had the opportunity to physically appear before the Lord, the newborn King. Surely an event they would, or at least should, never forget. God has now made that revelation known to the world. But Christmas has become surrounded by much pageantry. There’s music, lights, decorations, festivals, gift shopping and giving, and wonderful family gatherings. These are all beautiful things.

But does all the celebrating lead us to forget we’re supposed to be celebrating the presence of the King? A king who promised to be present where two or more are gathered in his name. (Matt 18.20) Thus every remembrance of his arrival in person should lead to wonder and worship. But have we forgotten the person we’re celebrating, and the import of his arrival?

Before going into the promised land, Moses warned the people about the dire consequences of forgetting about the Lord and all he’d done for the people in bringing them from the bondage Egypt into the freedom of their new land. Hearing of the presence of the Lord as they entered the promised land was a reminder for me of the presence of the Lord at the first Christmas. It was also a reminder that real Christmas celebrations are not about giving gifts to each other or even visiting with family, as happy as those make us. The true joy of Christmas is the ability to appear before the King, the Creator of the universe and the Savior of our souls. To be in his presence and wonder at his humility in laying aside the glory he had in heaven and deigning to descend to earth and die for us that we might live.

The Israelites were commanded to appear before God to be in his presence. But, this Christmas, let the compulsion not be one of command or the desire to give presents. Instead let the compulsion of our heart be the desire to be in the presence of the Lord, the King of creation. Let there be no need for an excuse for forgetting the real “reason for the season.” Instead, let the desire of our heart be to worship him due to the overwhelming mixture of joy and amazement that the almighty God loves us enough to appear personally and invite us to live with him. (John 14.2) Let us ponder that invitation and accept it anew with joy as we remember that holy night and rejoice as we delight that we, who know him, celebrate being in the very presence of the King. 

Duane Caldwell | December 25, 2022 | Printer friendly version


1. The historian Philo records: “Among the Persians there is the order of the Magi who silently make research into the facts of Nature to gain knowledge of the truth.”
Ref from: Search for the Star of Bethlehem, Science Channel Documentary, 2009

2. The calculation to the time of the arrival of the Messiah goes like this:
The key text is Dan 9.25-26

“25  Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.
26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.”

First question: what is his “coming” referring to? Archer in his commentary (“Daniel” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein Gen. Editor, 1979, Zondervan pp. 113-114) points out that the Messiah being “cut off” at the end of the 7 + 62 = 69 “sevens” (483 years) refers to the death of the messiah. Thus the time at the end point of the prophecy is the crucifixion, which most scholars, including Archer, agree occurred in 30 A.D. That means the decree would have had to have been issued some 483 before that. Is there such a decree? Archer points to “the decree issued to Ezra in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (464-424, that is in 457 B.C.” (p.114) He explains it thus:

“If, then, the terminus a quo [earliest or starting point] for the decree in [Dan 9] v.25 be reckoned as 457 B.C. (the date of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem), then we may compute the first seven heptads as running from 457 to 408, within which time the rebuilding of the walls, streets, and moats was completed. Then from 408 we count off the sixty-two heptads also mentioned in v. 25 and come out to A.D. 26 (408 is 26 less than 434). But actually we come out to AD. 27, since a year is gained in our reckoning as we pass directly from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1 (without any year zero in between). If Christ was crucified on 14 Abib A.D. 30, as is generally believed (cf. L.A. Foster, “The Chronology of the New Testament,” EBC [Expositors Bible Commentary], 1:598-99, 607), this would come out to a remarkably exact fulfillment of the terms of v.25.”
Gleason Archer, EBC, Vol 7 p. 114

Note Archer has Artaxerxes I reigning from 464-424. So he was reigning at the time of the decree (457). These dates for the reign of Artaxerxes I are consistent with the secular source Bernard Grun in his Chronology, “The Timetables of History” (1975, p. 12) who notes “Xerxes I assassinated -465; succeeded by his son Artaxexes I (to -424).” (Grun uses the minus sign to show dates B.C.)

So while the prophecy does not give the date of the birth of the Messiah, it does give the date of his appearance to Jerusalem as Messiah. As were the Magi from Persia, one might expect the wisemen of Israel to start looking for signs of the arrival in the immediate years prior to that time but, again, I do not fault them for missing it. As wisdom is called for in dealing with prophecies of the Antichrist (Rev 13.18) clearly wisdom is required in dealing with the time of the arrival of the Messiah which is clear in hindsight but cloaked and obfuscated for those living at the time of the prophecy.


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