The 12 Days of Christmas

Everything you know about Christmas is wrong!

Okay, not EVERYTHING.  But it’s astounding how much information about the most famous Christian holiday of the year has been lost to “tradition” by Christians.  Like the fact that December 25th is not likely to be Jesus’ actual birthday.  Especially if he was born outdoors. And although most nativity scenes show Jesus born in some kind of barn or stable, it’s just as likely he was born in a cave which is where many Israelites kept their animals.  A cave provided more complete shelter from the weather and didn’t require much construction other than a fence.  I have to admit, when I first heard the song “Away in A Manger,” I always thought the manger referred to where Jesus was born, not the animal trough he used as a crib.  And did you know that December 25th is the FIRST day of the 12 days of Christmas?  The twelve days after Christmas are considered Christmastime.  So, on Christmas you would have received the LEAST number of gifts, not the most.  And at the end of it all, was the Christian holiday of the Epiphany.  Believe it or not, it used to be bigger than Christmas and was one of the most celebrated days of the year along with Easter and Pentecost.  But somehow, the Epiphany became nothing more than a little known Christian observance instead of one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian calendar.  But what is it?

The three kings, plus some extras

Epiphany is the day when the magi arrived to honor the Christ child.

We hear about it in the Gospel of Matthew, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Matthew 2:1-2 and then we’ll skip ahead to read verses 9-12.  Another belief that has been perpetuated over the years is that the magi arrived on Christmas Day.  But if the star they saw in the sky was indeed the Star of Bethlehem that rose at Jesus’ birth, it would have been much later that they would have arrived.  Some speculate that it could have been as much as two years later.[1]  Adam Hamilton in his book Christianity and World Religions writes that these magi were actually Zoroastrian priests – followers of a completely different faith who believed that the stars revealed certain truths about the universe.[2]  Zoroastrianism was originated in what is now modern-day Iraq[3] – about 1,200 miles away.  That trip would have taken about two to three months if they suddenly left that moment, but it’s more likely they would’ve prepared for the journey before undertaking it.[4]  It’s weird that the common belief among Christians and non-Christians alike is that there were three kings who took that journey.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say there were only three and with a trip that massive it’s likely there were many more than that.  Nor does it say they were kings.  Instead, let’s hear it from the source itself.

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.”

Herod upon hearing this, became frightened because he believed like most other Jews, that the savior would come and take control of Israel.  That would mean Herod and his family would lose power if this child ever came to claim the throne.  Fearful for his crown, Herod secretly met with the magi and sent them to Bethlehem to search for the Christ child, with every intent of killing this possible threat.  The story continues.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. – Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12

The Epiphany is all about the revelation of Christ to the world.

And the reason this is so significant is that it proves God’s intention to include ALL of humanity in his plan for salvation.  Before this, it was widely thought that the savior prophesied about in Scripture was coming for the Jewish people only, to lift them up and raise them to be a mighty power in the world, but this event in the life of Jesus showed that God was working to bring even those outside of Judaism to faith in Christ. Jesus’ offer of salvation was always meant to be for the entire world.  What was most amazing about this story though is God didn’t bring these Zoroastrian priests to Christ DESPITE their faith in another religion, but THROUGH their faith. The Bible tells us not to rely on things like astrology. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses tells the people of Israel, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…” Yet, God uses the priests belief in astrology to bring them to Jesus.  Why the dichotomy?  Why have these different standards?  It’s the difference between people who claim to believe in Christ and those who don’t yet know him, because to those who profess faith in God, to put your faith in other things is to serve two masters, to not truly put your trust in him.  But to those outside the faith, God attempts to help those seeking his truth in whatever way they can understand.  The key is the search for truth – the search for God in the world.  Those who seek God will find him.  Those who choose not to seek God or who willfully deny God won’t.

If God reveals himself to all who seek him, then why are there so many different religions?

Do they all point to the same God?  Is there really no “truth” claim to Christianity?  Christians have long wrestled with this question, trying to discern meaning in the texts we have, in the letters that were written, and in our own understanding of God.  Although there are as many variations of this as there are in everything, Hamilton sums up the three different positions we find in Christianity as these – the pluralist, the exclusivist, and the inclusivist.  The pluralist, the exclusivist, and the inclusivist.  The pluralist believes that all roads lead to God.  The different religions we have are simply different manifestations of God’s work in the world and all are equally valid.  This is the “your God / my God” view.  Your God is good for you and my God is good for me.  But the pluralist view is too simplistic.  How can all roads lead to God when each view claims to be the one true way? It’s one thing to say that God works through all people of different religious faith.  It’s another to say they are all equally true.  We can be loving and tolerant and still be bold in our claim about Christ.

The exclusivist can sometimes be bold to a fault. 

The exclusivist believes only one path leads to God. Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  The problem with the exclusivist view is it makes God a very narrow-minded deity and tends to favor whatever we believe at the moment.  And different faiths have different ideas about this too.  A friend of mine and I had a long talk about this and it brought tears to my eyes to talk to her because she believed that if I didn’t believe in her version of Christianity I wouldn’t go to Heaven.  She believed that there was a process of becoming a Christian.  You had to follow certain steps, you had to be baptized a certain way, you had to do certain things, and only then would you go to Heaven.  She asked me what was wrong and I told her, “In my version of Christianity we’ll both be in Heaven.  In yours, I won’t.” Some people like the exclusivist view because it gives us rules to follow.  It makes getting to Heaven a formula.  But a life in Christ is both more simple and more difficult than that.

The path that stands in the middle is called the inclusivist.

The inclusivist believes that God’s full revelation to humanity came in Jesus Christ, but that God continues to work in the world through people of all faiths if someone honestly seeks to understand him.  And to seek him doesn’t mean you have to know the God of the Christian faith, but that you seek to know the creator of all things.  That when you open yourself up to God, he can work in and through you to bring you closer to him and to form you in his image.  An inclusivist does believe that God made himself known to us through Jesus so that all other claims of “truth” are measured against what we know of his work, his life, and what he taught.  But we don’t deny that God can work through other people. There are unbelievers in the Bible like King Cyrus that God used even though they didn’t believe in the God of the Hebrew faith so why can’t he work like that today?  Inclusivists are not universalists – they don’t necessarily believe all people will be saved.  As Hamilton puts it, “Rather they believe that God examines the hearts of people of other faiths; that God sees their true faith in him; and, as was the case with Abraham, that God credits this faith to them as righteousness.”[5]  Getting into Heaven is more than saying some words out loud.  It’s about living a life of grace and love as Christ did. Not all of us are lucky enough to have felt the love and grace of God through the doors of the church.  It’s hard to imagine that God would accept the person who claims to be Christian but never develops his faith, never studies God’s Word, never joins a community of believers, but would reject the person who shows the love and grace of Christ every day of their life but who was unfortunate enough to have been stopped short in their pursuit of God for one reason or another.

Do all roads point to God?  No.  Does everyone get in just because?  No.

But ultimately I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for all who earnestly seek him.  Some of the wisest words I ever heard came from my pastor at my home church, Dr. Harvey West.  He was leading our Bible study class and we came across the topic of salvation and someone asked him, “How do you know when you’re saved?”  And his response was, “I don’t.”  We were all shocked, because Harvey is the most saintly man you can meet.  Not a harsh word or a rude gesture could we imagine coming from him.  If HE didn’t know, we were sunk.  But then he said this, “But I have faith that God knows my heart and that my willingness to follow Christ and lead a Christ-like life honors him and that will be enough.  I leave the work of salvation to God and focus on leading the life I believe will honor God the most.”  The Epiphany is about God’s continual work in the world.  It is a testimony to the character of God, that God is constantly seeking us and will work in and through whatever circumstance we are in to find us and bring us to him.  But it does take work and it does take a willing heart.  To quote the X-Files, “The Truth is out there.”  And that truth lies in the love of God.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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[1] Stephen M. Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, p.60.

[2] Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions, p.27.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism

[4] OpCit., Miller, p.60.

[5] Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions, p. 26.

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