Advent: The Adoration of the Magi

Rachel Chimits

Worshiping and delighting in Jesus at Christmas sounds all well and good, but how do we find the time and the right frame of mind to do this amid the holiday chaos?

In 1480, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Augustinian monks of San Donato. He completed detailed drawings of the painting’s figures and scene, but then he left the city.

The painting would be finished years later by an unknown artist.

When the monks finally saw their commissioned piece, they were appalled. They had asked for and were expecting a serene manger scene with a traditional depiction of the three wise men.

Instead, they were confronted by Mary and Christ near a palm tree surrounded by a maelstrom of half-emaciated men with a full-blown battle happening in the background. Curators of da Vinci’s art call this painting one of his strangest works.

The Adoration of the Magi, as the painting would be called, would be copied by several other famous Renaissance artists. While few nowadays would recognize the original, our modern images of the three wise men must be credited in part to da Vinci and his bizarre, chaotic painting.

The Chaos of Christmastime

As much as Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill to all mankind, it often doesn’t feel that way. The distorted, anxious faces surrounding Christ and the three magi in da Vinci’s painting would be more in tune with the sorts of holiday pressures and family drama that we know about this time of year.

The last Advent Sunday before Christmas is meant to be a time of contemplation, that moment when we dwell on the wonder of Christ’s mortal life, ultimate sacrifice and eternal existence beside the Father.

The magi and their gifts so aptly represent this: gold for an earthly king, frankincense for the Lord of heaven, myrrh for Christ’s death and grave.

Like every Advent Sunday, this one represents another opportunity to remember how the entire gospel story echoes within the quiet manger scene. If only this season would feel as serene as the pictures often make that barnyard seem.

True peace on earth is a rare commodity, though. All the season cheer has to wrangle with the cacophony of last minute shopping, kids accidentally knocking over Grandma’s prized nativity set, “Up on the Housetop” blasting out of the radio and the phone ringing with someone complaining that their spouse is going to be allergic to everything in the Christmas dinner. How does one make a gluten-free glaze for the Christmas ham?

We aren’t the only ones, though, waylaid by secular government forces, popular culture and people’s demands upon us.

The magi had a long trip with an uncertain destination in front of them from the onset. Then King Herod forced them on an unwelcome detour, demanding that they report back to him. When they did finally find Christ, it couldn’t have been under the circumstances they’d imagined. Mary and Joseph’s house was surely nothing impressive.

They’d come all this way with extremely expensive gifts and been threatened by the local ruler for a king who hardly looked like a king and was living in a poor neighborhood. However, the Bible says that they were overjoyed upon finally finding Jesus and that they worshiped him (Matthew 2:9-11).

In the middle of the chaos and less-than-ideal circumstances, they worshiped.

Gifts of Money and Comfort…to God

Very few details are given in the Bible about the magi. They’re foreigners with some wealth; they interact with King Herod; they find Christ, worship him then leave.

The Bible doesn’t say anything about where they’re from, what their names are, how long they traveled, if they stayed for very long with King Herod, exactly how long it took them to arrive after Christ’s birth. We don’t even know how many magi there actually were.

The most specific details we’re given about the magi are actually about their gifts to the Messiah.

Gold was the chief marker of wealth and, in ancient Israel, strongly associated with Solomon’s temple. Frankincense was also very expensive and usually reserved for ceremonial worship. In Exodus, God specified a certain recipe of spices and frankincense that was the only kind of incense allowed in the tabernacle. Exodus similarly details how myrrh was to be used in anointing oils for the priests and temple before sacrifices could be made. It later became a chief ingredient in burial spices.

It may seem strange to an observant reader that such a big deal is made of these costly gifts and the apparent wealth of Jesus’ visitors.

Jesse Carey muses in his writings on the biblical magi and Christ, “We can't buy His love—it's unconditional, and His salvation is a free gift. So why does Jesus continually make reference to money and spend so much time teaching on it? Because He wants us to be willing to give up things that are of value to us so that we might learn that when we decrease, He increases.

“God doesn’t need our money—but He wants it because He wants our heart, our time and our desires. And so often in life, those are tied to things like money, success, prosperity and comfort.”

Herein lies the secret of the magi’s ability to worship despite the strangeness of their trip and the forces set against them.

Set Us Free From Our Security Blankets

Writer Mel Johnson noted a small but radical moment in the timeless Charlie Brown Christmas. It was when Linus dropped his blanket.

“In that climactic scene when Linus shares ‘what Christmas is all about,’ he drops his security blanket. And I am now convinced that this is intentional. Most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, ‘fear not.’”

Charles Schultz, a devout believer, understood the most vital part of the Christmas story. Christ didn’t come into a peaceful world to give us more or a better form of peace. He came to reorient our priorities so that when we’re confronted by everything that threatens us, we won’t be shaken.

In a Christmas sermon and newsletter, Gary Wilkerson muses on the pressures that we face during the holiday season and beyond that beckon us to focus on troubles and frustrations and the world’s resistance rather than Immanuel, God with us.

Near the end, he concludes, “When Herod Antipas sought to kill him, Jesus kept his focus. Some Pharisees warned him, “Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!” (Luke 13:31). Listen to Christ’s profound reply: “Go tell that fox that I will keep on...” (13:32).

“He was saying, in other words: “I will keep on doing exactly as I’m doing. I’ll heal the sick, cast out demons and multiply loaves and fishes to feed the hungry…. So go ahead and threaten me and the church that comes after me. I will keep on healing, saving and delivering, and my Word will triumph over all. I have come to fulfill my purpose to set every captive free.”

“May Jesus’ Christmas purpose fill our hearts fully this season. Let the world careen on its dark path. That won’t stop our powerful Savior from seeing his mission fulfilled. I’ve never heard of someone coming to Christ through a public manger scene, but I know scores who have been won through his love.

“May we keep to his purpose, which is our hopeful calling: ‘There is liberty in Jesus Christ. Hallelujah! He has come to set you free!’”

We value something this world can’t take away, so we can live in adoration of Christ, with extraordinary generosity and without fear.