The typical manger scene in a Christmas play or pageant has a cast of characters that never encountered each other in real life. The Gospel of Luke (2:1-7) paints a picture of a quiet event in a small rural town, focusing on a teenaged pregnant woman forced to have her baby in a donkey’s feeding trough, aided only by the rough, workingman’s hands of her older fiancĂ©. Were there a couple of farm animals around? Perhaps. Luke doesn’t tell us. No one noticed at first, but soon some coarse, illiterate shepherds were singled out to hear the first birth announcement from a group of angelic spirit-beings. After they got over their initial shock, they hurried over to the animal shed to check out what was happening (Luke 2:8-20). We’re not told that they kneeled down reverently, as all manger scenes show them doing. It seems that their first instinct was to hurry away to report their adventure to friends. OK, so Luke’s manger scene included Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and two or three puzzled shepherds. Animals? Maybe. Angels? The shepherds had encountered them on a hillside; there’s no indication they showed up at the manger as well. You know who else was missing that night? The Wise Men, of course.

Matthew’s nativity scene (1:18-2:13) doesn’t involve a manger at all. The setting is described as a house in Bethlehem where the young family was staying. Based on details described in the text, this could have happened as much as two years after the manger scene involving the newborn Baby and the shepherds. It’s all about a strange visit by the Three Wise Men. Well, maybe not three; they brought three exotic, expensive gift — gold, frankincense and myrrh, and that’s where the tradition of three visitors came from. Other ancient traditions put the number at four, even as many as twelve.*

These mysterious strangers are not referred to as Wise Men or Kings, as later tradition identified them. They are called Magi, a title with at least seven hundred years of previous history in the Middle East. Mentioned in both the Jewish Old Testament and in the writings of Greek historians, they had their origin as priests in the mysterious Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. The fact that they are described as “from the east” underlines that connection. But in the centuries since, with the decline of the Persian Empire and its religion, the term had been applied to a variety of influencers who seemed to have a special knowledge or gift that they used to manipulate people, including magicians (derived from the same Greek word as magi), sorcerers, fortune tellers and astrologers. At their best, Magi of Jesus’ time could be seen as pre-scientists, for astrology led them into astronomy.** It was while they were searching for star patterns in the heavens that they noticed the special star that ultimately led them to the young child Jesus.

Yes, they were late to the party. But by the time they arrived, they were all in. They “fell down and worshipped him,” and they showed the depths of their devotion by presenting him with those rich gifts. At the earlier manger scene, the Jewish shepherds were aware that something great was happening, because, why else would there be angels? And the angelic message was couched in Old Testament language about a Messiah/Savior King. The Magi had nothing to guide them but a star, but they sensed that something wonderful, something magical was happening, and they fell to their knees.

The Gospel of Christmas was for the Jewish people; not just for priests and rabbis, but for common shepherds.

The Gospel of Christmas was also for other people as well, all kinds of people, even followers of false religions and occult practices.

The Gospel of Christmas is for those who search the Scriptures and dedicate themselves to following correct teachings.

The Gospel of Christmas is also for those who look for truth in forbidden places and hope that a magical sign will surprise them.

The Gospel of Christmas is for those who fulfill all religious obligations and are right on time for worship services.

The Gospel of Christmas is also for those who always seem late to the party!

— Pastor George Van Alstine

* It was not until the 6th century that the number of three was crystallized into named figures with distinct identities: Balthazar (who was a black king from Ethiopia, about 40 years old), Melchior (who was older and was a king from Arabia) and Caspar (who was a young king from Tarsus).

** In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, magi are listed along with “enchanters, diviners, sorcerers and Chaldeans” as trying to compete with Daniel in interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s symbolic dream (Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 15). In the New Testament Book of Acts, Paul confronted a Jewish false prophet named. Elymas, who is described as a “magician” or “sorcerer” (Acts 13:6-12). The Greek term is magos, the singular of magi.