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Grief AND thankfulness in the Christmas story

Lynne Baab • Thursday December 12 2019

Grief AND thankfulness in the Christmas story

As a child I loved the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I loved the song’s two main themes: the perseverance of the wise men in following the star and the symbolism of each of the three gifts: gold to crown a king, frankincense to anoint a king (Messiah means “anointed one"), and myrrh for burial of the redeemer of the world. I understood the significance of the themes of this song by late elementary school. Even in junior high and high school, when each year I grew more distant from God, “We Three Kings” would remind me of the sweetness and purity of the faith I had in elementary school.

The story of the wise men is found only in Matthew’s gospel, and the song “We Three Kings,” as well as many recountings of the story of the wise men, leaves out the broader drama described in Matthew 2. The wise men’s visit Jerusalem to ask where a new king of the Jews would be born. Herod requests the chief priests and scribes to figure out prophecies about the Messiah’s birthplace. Herod then slyly asks the wise men to go to Bethlehem, find the king, and return to Herod so Herod could go give homage. The wise men are warned in a dream to go home another way, and an angel in a dream warns Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

I am so thankful that God fulfilled the prophecy in Micah 5:2 so the wise men could actually find Jesus’ at his birth. I’m so glad for the rich symbolism in the gifts the wise men brought. And in this time when refugees are in the news every day, I’m grateful Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Our own Lord and Savior loves refugees as one who has experienced that perilous and precarious state.  

But when the wise men didn’t return to Jerusalem, Herod came to Bethlehem and killed all the babies that might have been the newborn king.

I was an associate pastor at Bethany Presbyterian Church for seven years, and for all of those years, I was asked to preach on the Sunday after Christmas. Sometimes the lectionary passage focused on the story of the three kings, and I focused my sermons on the evocative nature of the gifts along with the significant fact that the three kings were the first Gentile worshippers of Jesus, a major sign that the gift of the Gospel is for all nations.

Some of those years the lectionary passage included the story of the babies in Bethlehem who Herod killed, Matthew 2:16-18. The first time I prepared to preach on that passage, I became aware of a great truth. Even in the stories of Jesus’ birth, we are confronted by the brokenness of the world and the atrocious things people in power will do to retain their power. In the midst of that awfulness, God comes to us.

That’s the point of the Christmas story: God in Christ comes into a world full of sin and selfishness and sorrow and grief. In many ways the Matthew 2 portion of the Christmas story – the drama of the wise men’s visit to Herod, the gifts and worship by the wise men, Herod’s over-the-top response – presents the quintessence of the Christmas story: thankfulness AND grief.

Next week: Grief AND thankfulness at Christmas 2019. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers to my blog. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.

My latest favorite Christmas song: Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

A couple of earlier Christmas posts on this blog:

This is the seventh post in a series on Grief AND Thankfulness. The first post is here, and you can read the other posts consecutively.



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