Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, entry 3280 magus).

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, uses it in a more neutral way for “one of a Median tribe” (Liddell-Scott, Greek Lexicon (Abridged)). For an example of how it is used in the Old Testament, we have this from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, so he did what all kings did back then: He called in his experts to help him interpret the dream.

So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king,

(Dan 2:2 NRSV)

In the Septuagint, magus translates the Hebrew ‘ashaph, which corresponds with “enchanters” in this translation. The reference to the Chaldeans could connect it to the “Medians” per Herodotus. The BDB lexicon defines it as a “conjurer, [or] necromancer,” and says it is probably a loan word from the Babylonian asuipu. All of the categories listed probably had some connection with magic and/or astrology, and they are advisors to the king. We could probably guess the magi in the Nativity story are the same. It is clear that they practiced astrology, because the appearance of a star prompted their journey.

In the Book of Acts, magi include Simon Magus (8:9-11), Bar Jesus (13:6), and Elymas (13:8), all of them villains. However, they would not have had the same status as Median or Persian magi in the court of the king. Given what Persian religion was, they might have been priests, as Friberg and Thayer said. There is an old image of the magi wearing caps shaped like cornucopias that identify them as priests of Mithras. Though it is dated several hundred years later, it is a possibility.

The Case for Persia

If you’re feeling like I turned a firehose of information on you, fear not. We can make sense of all this.

Scholars have speculated that these magi were likely either Persian or Arabian. I think Persian is more likely. They came “from the East,” so the land of Persia (Parthia to the Romans) is a likely candidate. The books of Daniel and Esther make references to the laws of the Medes and the Persians, and as one lexicon said, there is a possible connection of magoi with the Medes. Ever since Cyrus conquered Babylon for the Persians in about 538 BC, there had been a thriving community of Jews in Babylon. The book of Daniel is all about how he and his friends served alongside the advisors of the king’s court. It’s not hard to imagine that some wise men, priests, or magicians (perhaps a combination of all three) might have had some Jewish friends. They might have learned about their expectation of a Messiah. And then, they saw a “star” that indicated there was a new king of the Jews. Then about nine months later, they saw another “star.” Two stars in nine months both saying the same thing? For counselors/magicians/astrologers, that had to be significant. (I talk about what these “stars” most likely were in a previous post).

So they travel to Jerusalem along established trade routes bringing gifts, because you always bring gifts when you want to appear before a foreign king, perhaps on camels (or not, since archeologists said a few years ago there were no camels in the middle east until the 9th century AD, which makes no sense, because how could they be mentioned in the Bible so many times if the Biblical authors never saw or even heard of a camel? I like archeologists, but they got some ‘splaining to do on that).

Anyway, they arrive at the palace of Herod, king of the Jews, because isn’t that where you would look for a newborn king? Turns out it was news to Herod a new king had been born, which meant there was a usurper somewhere. They knew because they saw his star “at its rising” (not “in the east,” which makes no sense geographically).

Herod consulted his advisors, scribes and chief priests, who said the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2. Herod had survived so long on the throne by being both crafty and ruthless. He pointed the magi to Bethlehem and asked them to send him word when they find him, so he could “worship him” (or pay him homage) as well. Of course, that was a pretense. Herod planned to use the magi to discover where to find this would be king, so he could kill him. Thanks to an angel, the magi got wise to his plan (maybe that’s why they were called “wise men,” ha ha). So after they visited the child (not baby, by the way), gave him their gifts and worshipped him—indicating they believed he was the Messiah—they left for home, avoiding Herod altogether.

The Gifts: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

One thing I love about the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is how it explains the appropriateness of these gifts, and how they foreshadowed Jesus’ destiny as the Messiah. Gold represented royalty; frankincense was burned in the temple, hence divinity; and myrrh was used for embalming the dead, hence his death would be central to his mission.

Glorious now behold Him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice!

Al-le-lu-ia, al-le-lu-ia,

Heaven to earth replies.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are”

Excellent Christology. I remember back in college, after I had rededicated my life to Christ, I would hear the traditional Christmas Carols, ones that I had heard all my life, and felt like for the first time, I got it. I realized then some of the best Christology ever written is in those traditional Christmas hymns. I still had a lot to learn, but that was such a beautiful feeling.

But Didn’t You Say They Weren’t Kings?

Yes, they were most likely advisors to the king but not kings themselves. Some traditions have changed their title from magi to kings. In Spanish, the holiday called Epiphany is translated Dia de los Reyes (“kings”), when technically it should be “Dia de los Magos.” I think early Christians were not comfortable calling them “magicians” or “astrologers,” since both practices are forbidden in the Bible. “Wise men” is one alternative that became popular, and I think that is an acceptable translation. After all, their job was to give wise counsel to the king. Kings became another alternative, even though there is no textual evidence to justify that translation.

And while we’re at it, our images and Nativity scenes show three magi, but we don’t know how many there were. The Gospel of Matthew never specifies how many magi. We probably got three from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But two could have brought those gifts. So could twelve. Tradition settled not only on three but also names for them: Gaspar, Baltasar, and Melchior.

Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar: the three magi bearing gifts
Image By Nina-no – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2176501 The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.  565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

The earliest reference that says three magi comes from about 250 AD, too late for us to be sure. But we can stick with three just because it’s familiar, and three gifts from three wise men really does make the most sense.

We Have Seen His Star at Its Rising

Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Mat 2:2 KJV)

This doesn’t make sense. They came from the east (2:1), which means they traveled west. If they saw his star “in the east,” why did they follow the star “westward leading,” as the hymn says. That’s like if I wanted to find Santa’s workshop.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“The North Pole.”

“Which way is that?”

“Uh, north. Obviously.”

And then I travel south looking for the North Pole. Travel south to go north, travel west to go east. Crazy, right?

This is another case where we have learned a few things since the King James Version of 1611 that allow us to translate more accurately. The Greek phrase in question is en te anatole. In verse 1, Anatole is translated “East,” but it is in plural form. When it is singular, as in this particular phrase, en te anatole, it is best translated “at its rising.” In astrological terms, this refers to when a new “star” appears in the sky, as in a planetary conjunction. This is reflected in most modern translations.

In a previous post, I explained why I think the Jupiter-Regulus and Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 BC are the best candidates for what the magi saw. So here is a better translation (humble brag).

2.1-2 And Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King. Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who was born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”

(my translation).

When can you call yourself a Bible Geek? When you do your own translations of Biblical Greek and Hebrew for fun! So yes, I am an unabashed Bible Geek.

And in Your Seed Shall All Nations Be Blessed

Since there was an astronomical event around the time of Jesus’ birth that gives a plausible explanation for what the magi saw, I have this question. What does it say about God that God would time the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to correspond with a sign in the heavens that Gentile astrologers (how un-kosher can you get) would not only recognize but be so moved that they would trek hundreds of miles just to see this baby or young child?

There were many prophecies that people from all the nations of the world would come to the land of Israel to seek the wisdom of God’s chosen people there. Matthew’s community probably saw the magi as the first Gentiles to fulfill all those prophecies. I could refer to any of those. But what I think of now is something God said to Abraham.

“And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

(Gen 22:18 NAS)

In the book of Galatians, Paul says this is a reference to the Messiah, because “seed” (Heb. zera`) is singular, not plural (Gal 3:16). In other words, the promise to bless all nations would not come through all descendants of Abraham, but through one particular descendant, the Messiah. The magi probably learned about this from their Jewish friends. If the Messiah has come, he will be a blessing not only to the Jews but to us as well. And God did not hold it against them that they engaged in astrology and/or magic. Instead, God used it to tell them the blessing of Abraham had come to them as well.

I don’t want anyone to see this as an endorsement of astrology. I don’t believe in it and never have. When did astrologers ever read something specific and get it right? Never. Well, I guess now I have to admit that on this one occasion, the astrologers were right. And it reveals a God who reaches out to people where they are, not just where they should be.

Credit to the Jews

For Jews living in a city like Babylon, their kosher laws made it difficult to interact with Gentiles. There was always a fine line between being good neighbors and losing their Jewish identity. The books of Daniel and Esther show some wise Jews serving in the courts of kings and how they reconciled faithfulness to God with respect for the laws of the land. In a Parthian court, these magi must have worked with some Jews. How else would they have known about the promise of the Messiah?

So when they saw the conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, their “manual” told them a new king of the Jews had been born. He must be an important king if it is announced in the heavens. Could he be the Messiah? Then that was confirmed with the Jupiter-Venus conjunction nine months later. So in June of 2 BC, they knew the Messiah had been born. But it took until possibly some time between October and early December in 1 BC for them to arrive in Jerusalem at the court of Herod.

Why didn’t they leave immediately? Most likely their duties as priests/magi/counselors kept them home for a while. Since the Roman and Parthian empires were mortal enemies, it probably was not easy to get permission to travel to a Roman territory. But then somehow the opportunity came for them to take a diplomatic trip. They got permission to search for this newborn king, probably with a stipulation that they return ASAP. The time of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus had passed, but astrologers back then had to be meticulous and precise in charting their observations. I think they still could have “followed the star” on their charts.

We can only imagine what they felt seeing this child, but here’s how Matthew describes it.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

(Mat 2:11 NRSV)

I imagine in a lot of ways, Jesus looked like an ordinary baby. But the wise men saw him as the Messiah, so they must have been overwhelmed after searching for him to finally see him in the flesh. I wonder what they told their Jewish friends about him when they returned. And this is where I want to give credit to those Jews who befriended them.

It’s not easy being a Jew in a Gentile country, always having to stay true to your faith and identity while mixing with people who represent a threat to both. Some took the path of isolation, and others the path of assimilation. In order to be friends with these magi, these Jews had to navigate a path between those extremes, not veering to the left or the right. That is not as easy as some people seem to think it is. But with God’s help, they found a way.

The magi were eager to learn new knowledge. They saw in the Jews a wisdom they had never encountered. If those Jews had assimilated, they would not have looked any different from the other counselors in the court. The magi would have found them interesting but not compelling. If they had isolated, the magi would never have learned about the Messiah. Because who else could have taught them about the promise of the Messiah in the scriptures? They didn’t proselytize or preach to a captive audience. They didn’t demand the magi convert, becomes circumcised, or give up their gods, magic, or astrology. They simply shared what they knew with people who wanted to learn. Never underestimate the power of that kind of witness. Without it, the Magi would have had no reason to care that a new king of the Jews had been born.

References

 “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks Who Were the Magi,”

Translation Notes

μάγοι noun nominative masculine plural common

[GING] μάγος
μάγος, ου, 1. a Magus, pl. Magi, a wise man or astrologer Mt 2:1, 7, 16.—2. magician Ac 13:6, 8.* [pg 121]

17609  μάγος, ου, ὁ from Persian magus (great); (1) magus, plural magi, the high priestly caste of Persia; wise man of the Magian religion (MT 2.1); (2) magician, sorcerer, one using witchcraft or magic arts (AC 13.6)

ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ (Mat 2:2 BNT), Noun, Dat F S; see note on v. 1; “at its rising” (NRSV) or “when it rose” (ESV).

6 tn Or “in its rising,” referring to the astrological significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term used for the “East” in v. Mat 2:1 is ἀνατολαί (anatolai, a plural form that is used typically of the rising of the sun), while in vv. Mat 2:2 and Mat 2:9 the singular ἀνατολή (anatole) is used. The singular is typically used of the rising of a star and as such should not normally be translated “in the east” (cf. BDAG 74 s.v. 1: “because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. Mat 2:1, [it is] prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical…likew. vs. Mat 2:9“). (BW translation note).

2.11

πεσόντες verb participle aorist active nominative masculine plural from πίπτω

[GING] πίπτω
πίπτω fall, the passive of the idea conveyed in βάλλω—1. lit. Mt 15:27; Mk 9:20; Lk 8:7; 21:24; Ac 20:9; Rv 1:17. Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14. Fall to pieces, collapse Mt 7:25, 27; Lk 13:4; Hb 11:30; Rv 11:13.—2. fig. Ac 1:26; 13:11; Rv 7:16. Fail, become invalid Lk 16:17; 1 Cor 13:8. Be destroyed Rv 14:8; 18:2. In a moral or cultic sense go astray, be ruined, fall Ro 11:11, 22; Hb 4:11; 1 Cor 10:12; Rv 2:5. [pg 159]

προσεκύνησαν verb indicative aorist active 3rd person plural from προσκυνέω

[GING] προσκυνέω

proskune,w (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object—1. to human beings Mt 18:26; Ac 10:25; Rv 3:9.—2. to God Mt 4:10; J 4:20f , 23f; 12:20; Ac 24:11; 1 Cor 14:25; Hb 11:21; Rv 4:10; 14:7; 19:4.—2. to foreign deities Ac 7:43.—3. to the Devil and Satanic beings Mt 4:9; Lk 4:7; Rv 9:20; 13:4; 14:9, 11.—4. to angels Rv 22:8.—5. to Christ Mt 2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 20:20; 15:25; 28:9, 17; Mk 5:6; 15:19 ; Lk 24:52. [pg 171]

They knelt down. Some translations say fell down. In Greek the word is pesontes, which is a participle of pipto. Generally, it means fall, but it can have the specific meaning of “Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14” (Gingrich).

Paid him homage. Some translations say worshipped him. In Greek the word it prosekunesan, an Indicative Aorist of prosekuneo. In general, it means “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object” (Gingrich).

The Star of Bethlehem in 2020?

Tonight, December 21, they say the planets Jupiter and Saturn will align to create a bright “star” in the sky. Some have speculated that the star of Bethlehem may have been this same event. I did some research a few years ago on the star, because I wondered what astrologers from “the east” would have seen that told them a new king of the Jews was born, and why Herod and his Jewish subjects didn’t see it?

Three magi silhouette with star
Has the mystery of the star been solved?

A conjunction not as rare as Halley’s Comet, but in the year 7 B.C., there were three conjunctions of the two planets. That might have got their attention. However, it looks to me like the most likely explanation is rather a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and a star called Regulus. I haven’t found my notes on it, but A Wikipedia article brought back most of the details for me.

  • In September, 3 B.C., there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter (the “king planet”) with Regulus (the “king star”).
  • In June, 2 B.C., Jupiter was in conjunction with Venus, associated with love and fertility. We don’t usually associate fertility with Jesus, but considering this came nine months after the Jupiter-Regulus conjunction, astrologers from the East might have seen the previous event as the conception, and this as the birth.
  • A comet, supernova, or some other new bright “star” in the sky would have been noticed by most people in Jerusalem. However, an alignment of planets would be subtle enough that Jews would not notice, since astrology was forbidden to them. That makes this a much more likely explanation.

One problem with this theory is that Herod’s death has been dated at 4 B.C., because Josephus said it happened shortly after a lunar eclipse (Ant. 17.6.4). However, modern physics has calculated besides 4 B.C., there were also two lunar eclipses in 1 B.C. I think a good argument can be made for the lunar eclipse of December 29, 1 BC as the one Josephus referred to. That would put the Jupiter-Regulus-Venus conjunction(s) still within the right time-frame. One question you might have now it, “How cold Jesus have been born ‘Before Christ’?”

Most Experts Think Jesus Was Born B.C.

The makers of the Gregorian Calendar (the one we still use today) tried to reset the calendar with the birth of Jesus at 1 AD. But evidence came to light later that indicated they miscalculated. Most notably, Josephus reports Herod died in the time between a lunar eclipse and the following Passover (Ant. 17.6.3-4, 9). Astronomical events like that can be dated accurately. A lunar eclipse was visible in Judea in 4 BC, and two more in 1 BC. This could give us a solid reference point, because the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born shortly before Herod’s death. Here is the order of events according to Matthew.

  1. Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  2. The magi see a star that tells them a new king of the Jews has been born.
  3. The magi visit Herod, seeking the new king.
  4. The magi encounter Jesus as a child (not a baby) with his father and mother. They offer gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  5. The magi return home, avoiding Herod.
  6. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt with his wife and child.
  7. Herod orders every male child under two years old killed.
  8. Herod dies.
  9. Joseph and family return to the land of Israel, settling in Nazareth.

Herod’s death (8) in either 4 or 1 BC seems to be the most solid reference point. Matthew hints that the star (2) appeared to the magi as much as two years before the slaughter of the innocents (7). Herod’s death happened shortly after that, but we don’t know how long. If we accept June, 2 B.C., based on the magi’s observations, and the lunar eclipse of 1 B.C. as the one (how long?) before Herod died, then Jesus could have been about a year and a half when Herod died.

The visit from the magi could not have been long before that, since Herod thought the child could be as much as two years old. Maybe Jesus was about one-and-a-half, but Herod made the age limit two, just to be sure.

So this looks to me like the most plausible theory about the star of Bethlehem. Now here are a few other details around the Christmas story you might not have known.

Did You Know?

Caesar Augustus Ordered Three Censuses, Like Luke Described

Another clue comes from Luke, when he said the emperor Augustus ordered a census the year Jesus was born. Luke also gives this as the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But they don’t correspond to the year we think Jesus was born (6-4 BC). So while the practice of taking censuses in general can be confirmed, a Census date that matches Jesus’ birth cannot.

I am missing my notes, so I don’t have any more info on this right now.

Jesus Was Not Really Born on December 25

The story of Jesus’ birth comes from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The most relevant detail for Jesus’s birthday comes from the Gospel of Luke, which says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth. On the other hand, if it was at the Jupiter-Venus conjunction, that would place his birthdate in June.

All of that to say no one knows exactly the day he was born.

So Why Do We Celebrate on December 25th, You Ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, the date a great man was born was not necessarily important among the Jews. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important until decades after his death. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death, resurrection, and promised return.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

-ancient church confession

They seemed to believe great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them, so they would not necessarily be interested in his natural origins. Mark and John did not include birth narratives in their Gospels, because it wasn’t important to them (see also Heb 7:3).

It was only in later years, maybe around the 60’s or 70’s, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem? Luke investigated and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be (drum roll) Bethlehem! If he’s right, we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Yes, I already told you this, but you might forget it when you look at your Nativity scene. Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi the king they seek would have to be born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11; cf. Luk 2:16). The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (also called “kings” or “wise men” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

“According to the Time That He Had Learned from the Wise Men”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

(Mat 2:16 NRS)

The magi (or “wise men”) tricked Herod, because an angel warned them in a dream not to return to him, so they went home without informing the reigning king. In the same way, Joseph received warning from an angel and fled with his wife and child to Egypt.

Herod responded with shocking cruelty. He ordered his soldiers to kill every male child up to two years of age. Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. There is some debate about whether this “slaughter of innocents” really happened. First century historian Josephus gives a lot of detail about Herod the Great, but he says nothing about this. However, Josephus tells us enough to say it is consistent with his character. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. Afterwards, Emperor Augustus commented it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son, since as a Jew he would not kill a pig.

But if Jesus was a baby (newborn or less than a month old), why kill all the males under two years old? Under one, I could see. You want to be generous with your margin for error. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking and much bigger than a newborn. They might even be speaking a few words. You don’t need to go that far ahead to “off” a newborn baby. But remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or under.

The Kingdom of God vs. The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers of this world would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. And he would not ally himself with such powers. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the high born, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

-“O Holy Night”

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers of this world have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military might. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone (Mat 20:25-28; Mar 10:42-45).

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

Church in Kafr Kanna

Cana Grace and Mother’s Day

I originally published this on a different blog. But it struck me this is a perfect story to say Mother’s Day, to my mom and mothers everywhere.


If you remember your wedding day, how would you have felt if your wedding planner came to you during the reception and said, “We’ve run out of food and not all the guests have been served”? I suppose you would have panicked for a moment and then expected the wedding planner to fix it. Find some food. I don’t care where you get it. Just get it here now. You would not have expected any of the guests to get it for you.

When Jesus and Mary are at a wedding in Cana[1] (see John 2:1-12), Mary hears they have run out of wine. She probably felt their embarrassment, especially if they were friends of hers. In Galilee in the first century, “those invited might be expected to contribute provisions such as wine” (HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, John 2.1 note). So it was not necessarily unusual for her to ask her son to help.

Interesting fact about Jewish weddings in the first century: Receptions lasted a full week. During this time, the bride and the bridegroom had their honeymoon in their new home. The wedding guests celebrated outside.

Church in Kafr Kanna
Called the “wedding church” in Kafr Kanna, believed to be on the site of the wedding described in John 2:1-12.

Jesus appears unconcerned at first.

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

(Joh 2:4 NRS)

I know mothers are going to ask, why did he call her “Woman,” instead of Mother or Mom? That probably was not disrespectful in that culture (compare 19:26; 20:15). But the next line he says indicates her request is about more than wine. In other words, “This is not the time to reveal myself as the Messiah and Son of God.”

But his mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Joh 2:5 NRS)

I imagine at this point, she gave him The Mother’s Look. You know what I’m talking about. Your mother wants you to do something, and she gives you that look that tells you there is no arguing with her about this. That sets the scene for Jesus’ first miracle–or sign as John prefers to call it–turning water into wine. She knows something about her son, something he does not want to reveal–at least, not yet. He does not think it is the right time to show his miracle working power. His hour has not yet come. Really Mom? You think this is how I should reveal to the world I am the Son of God? But he does it anyway.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

(Joh 2:6 NRS)

So the servants need to get wine fast. They are waiting for Jesus to tell them what to do. He sees six large stone water jars, and as a Jew, he would know these are used to hold water for purification rites. He says to fill them with water. What were the servants thinking? How is purifying ourselves going to help us get wine?

But Mary is there, and maybe she reminds them. “I said, do whatever he tells you!”

They follow his directions, filling the jars to the brim. They draw some out. At what point did the water change to wine? When it was in the jars or when they drew some out (in a pitcher I imagine)? When the chief steward tasted it? Who knows. And I have to wonder, as important as washing for purification rituals was for Jews, how could these jars have been empty?

At any rate, this water that would normally be used to wash people and objects for ritual purification has turned into wine, and the social crisis is solved. With the capacity of each jar, they would have had 120-180 gallons of wine, presumably enough to last the entire reception.

It’s a strange story, so I feel more compelled than usual to ask,

What can we learn from this?

The purification vessels are empty then filled with water, which allows them to fulfill their original purpose. Jesus repurposes them when he turns the water into wine. One commentator says,

The pots contain only water. Soon Jesus will fill them with eschatological[2] wine, a rich symbol in the biblical tradition inferring prosperity, abundance, good times; the wine will overflow the water pots. Their true purpose will be fulfilled. Changing the pots of water into pots flowing over with good wine becomes a metaphor for Jesus’ ministry as he brings vitality to the ancient religion.[3]

 You can be spiritual and still join others in celebration. Two of the fruits of the spirit are love and joy. One way to show love is to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. A wedding feast is a time for rejoicing with those who rejoice, and any religion should make room for joy when it is appropriate.

 It is okay to pray for “unimportant” things. I hear people all the time say, “Don’t pray for that. God has more important things to do.” Did Jesus have more important things to do than keep the party going? Yes, and he would go on to do them. But for now, he is there, and they need wine. Someone asks for his help, and he answers.

Any religion should make room for “Cana Grace.”
Cana Grace? This is a new term for me, but one commentator explains it this way.

…it is worth a miracle because it manifests the glory of God—the very God who wants even now for the community of faith to be a celebration of people. Brothers and sisters in Christ eating on the back porch and laughing until the sun goes down; a new members’ dinner at someone’s home that ends with folks giving thanks to God for the welcome they have received at church—it is called Cana Grace. Give thanks for everyone in your church and in your life who has the knack for throwing a party. What a way to begin a ministry![4]

So what if there were much bigger problems in the world. Yes, it was almost incredibly embarrassing for the hosts, but social embarrassment is not the end of the world. But if we’re honest, it sure feels like the end of the world. Jesus saved the day by bringing “Cana Grace” when his friends needed it. It was not the way he planned to launch his ministry, which strangely makes it feel even more appropriate. And the reason is one we can all relate to. He had a very hard time saying no to his mother.

Addendum

Did you know the joy of the kingdom of God/Heaven is often compared to a wedding or wedding feast? Just a few examples:

  • Isa 62.1-5
  • Hos 2.16, 19-20
  • Mat 22.1-14; 25.1-13
  • Rev 19.7-9; 21.2-4

References

[1] Cana was a small town in the middle of Galilee, about 10 miles north of Nazareth.

[2] Eschatological or eschatology relates to the end times. God’s future action to end this world and inaugurate a new one is a common theme in the Bible. What will this new world be like? That is what eschatology is concerned with.

[3] Bridges, Linda McKinnish. Exegetical perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.

[4] Brearly, Robert M. Pastoral perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.

Happy Holidays!

I am not posting any blogs until next year. I will resume the first Monday morning. And I hope to have a pretty major announcement then.

Until then, Happy Holidays. Or …

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Boxing Day, Happy Sol Invictus, Happy New Year, and Happy Dia de los Reyes. Oh, and a Happy Festivus for the rest of us.

Now do you understand why some people say Happy Holidays?

Little Known Facts about Christmas Traditions

I thought I would take a break from blogging for the holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little bit of background about our Christian traditions.

Did You Know?

Jesus was not really born on December 25

The Gospel of Luke says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.

Emerson White Hours's depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds
The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Painting ca. 1485-90,

So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Ancient Christian confession

They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.

It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?

Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

cave painting of the magi
Hard to make out but this is the earliest artistic rendering of the magi discovered so far, believed to be mid-3rd century.

Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.

But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.

The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.

He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night”

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.

Paperback excerpt: The War on Thanksgiving

This blog post was originally posted December 1, 2016. Then it became part of my book, Dark Nights of the Soul. The holidays are upon us, so I’m posting this excerpt to remind folks not to forget to give thanks during the Christmas season. I want to encourage everyone to shop stores that are closed on Thanksgiving day.


Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music and put up Christmas decorations. Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now, it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store. It was sunny and almost 80 degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

And a few years ago, stores started opening on Thanksgiving day. Really? You can’t wait until Black Friday for your big sale?

Good or Bad for Business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is the question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving Day sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.[1]

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

Why Am I Talking about This on a Blog about Faith and Depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: the fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money.

Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Grace and peace to you.


[1] Josh Hafner, “To Open or Not? Inside Stores’ Thanksgiving Dilemma,” USA Today, October 19, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/19/open-not-retailers-wage-battle-thanksgiving/92380280/

Longest Night Service

 We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but that is not when Jesus was most likely born. The Gospel of Luke says, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luk 2:8).

If Luke is correct, this would place his birth between February and April, when the ewes give birth to their lambs. This is when shepherds had to watch them all night, to be ready to assist the laboring sheep. This begs the question, why do we celebrate on December 25?

In about 312 AD, Constantine became emperor of Rome. He credited a key victory over his rival to a vision of the cross. He wanted to make an official holiday for Jesus’ birth. Mithras, a Persian deity, was also popular in the empire. His devotees celebrated his birthday on December 25. Constantine thought celebrating Jesus’ birth on the same day would help unify the people.

It also corresponded with the winter solstice and the Unconquered Sun celebration. People then like today noticed the days getting shorter until the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It was as if the sun was weakening over months, maybe dying. Just when hope was at its lowest, the sun would gather its strength, and the days started getting longer again. The sun was still unconquered.

 

The Longest Night of the Year

 

Some churches have taken this idea of the longest night and made services around that theme. The idea is to give people who are depressed, lonely, and grieving during the holidays a chance to acknowledge those feelings. In my own denomination (PCUSA), only about 25% of congregations offer this type of service. I have never been to one. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  • They may be called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services. I think the Longest Night is a more appropriate name. As one pastor said, “When you hear, ‘Come to the Blue Christmas’ service, you might think it is a service where you will get depressed.” That is not the impression they want to give.
  • In some churches, the Advent candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, are extinguished. For the Longest Night, they are replaced by hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness. This is not to depress people but to give them a chance to acknowledge these feelings.
  • Some churches have Parish Nurses plan and participate in the services.

Even though many acknowledge the need for a service like this during the holidays, attendance is often low. When one associate pastor of a congregation with 1,500 members proposed the idea, the members overwhelmingly approved it. But at the service itself, only twenty-five attended. Despite putting more effort into publicizing it and explaining the purpose, next year was the same. When asked why, people said they were not depressed, so they did not think this service was for them.

This is less than two percent of the congregation. The percentage of people living with depression is much greater than that. This points to a larger problem, not only in the church but in society as a whole. It is still difficult for many people to acknowledge depression and the feelings associated with it, especially during the  holidays. As one pastor said, “People are really unwilling to self-identify as grieving. People seem to prefer to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant and all those ‘boot strappy’ words that are part of our American ideal.”

Another said, “We as a culture tend to overlook the people who are grieving, who are lonely, especially at this time of year.”

In light of this, churches may have a better response if they focus on healing for others. Most people are more willing to come on behalf of a friend of family member who has experienced loss than for themselves.

 

Christmas on the Longest Night

 

Even though it is not historically accurate, Christmas on or near the longest night of the year fits spiritually. On Christmas, we celebrate the eternal Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In him was the same light that was with God in the beginning. And like the unconquered sun, even though the light may be hidden, it has always been and will always be there. The light shines brightest in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In his flesh, Jesus experienced all the hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness you or I ever have. He is present to walk with us through our darkness and pain until we see the light again. Knowing this has not cancelled out the light represented in Advent, Christmas, and Easter services for me. It has made them meaningful at a deeper level.

One pastor said it very well. “The Incarnation is a reason for celebration that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to be with us, but it is also a reason for celebration that Jesus came to walk with us through the pains of life as well. I wish we could better hold these two messages together.”

 

Grace and peace to you.

  

References

 

Dunigan, E. (Oct. 26, 2018). “Blue Christmas: ‘Tis the season—for depression.” Presbyterians Today

 

Download a copy of a Blue Christmas liturgy here.

 

The Holiday Blues

 

‘Tis that season when you hear “Joy to the World” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” everywhere you go. We think of the holidays as a joyful time, where we get to enjoy our families, food, and gifts. Yet for some, the holidays are a time of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Because of that, I’ve added this chapter on dealing with holiday depression.

Why are the holidays a depressing time for some people? Experts cite a number of reasons.

  • Stress. The parties, the get-togethers, the shopping, the decorating, yes, it’s all fun, but it’s stressful too. Normal irritations can become magnified during the holidays.
  • Pressure to be happy. When you see people around you happily saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and stores are playing holiday music to get people in a shopping mood, you feel out of place if you cannot get into “the holiday spirit.”
  • Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons often lead to depression. If you are comparing this holiday to ones in the past, you’ll feel disappointed if this year does not measure up. If your neighbors appear cheerful and have it all together better than you do, remember at home behind closed doors, they are probably as stressed as you.
  • Doing too much. If just the thought of holidays brings stress and anxiety, it’s probably because you have done too much in the past. Maybe it’s time to scale back.
  • Neglecting self-care. If you meditate and exercise, you might be tempted to put that on hold because you feel pressed for time. You might not be getting enough sleep or taking time during the day to decompress.
  • Family strife. Spending time with family is the most important part of the holidays for most people. However, there might be some family you’d rather avoid.
  • Overindulging. If you have depression, WebMD recommends you avoid food and drink that makes your blood sugar spike. This includes most of the holiday treats we love. Sugar highs and the inevitable crashes afterwards are not a recipe for holiday cheer. And of course overindulging in alcohol will not help.
  • Isolation. Being apart from those you love never feels good. But during the holidays, you miss them even more. For those who have just moved to a new city, especially if they are single, they may not have made any friends where they are. They feel alone because they have no one to celebrate with.
  • Grieving. The first holiday after the loss of your spouse or parents or children can be rough. If most of your best holiday memories are with someone who can no longer be with you, the loss you feel will be magnified during the holidays.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition where people become more depressed as the days get shorter. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is timed perfectly for SAD.
  • Post-holiday letdown. You manage to get your fill of holiday cheer in spite of the stress, and then it’s over. Until next year at least. As stressful as it was, some people miss the activity, the busyness, the holiday cheer, and the people who have gone back home.
  • Overspending. Some people use “retail therapy” to cope with depression, and the holidays present every temptation to overspend. Buying those expensive gifts is a big hit with those you give to. Then the credit card bills arrive.

 

 

What you can do

 

  1. Set expectations low. The lower your expectations, the less you can be disappointed. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and you won’t have a meltdown when it’s not.
  2. Plan ahead and Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you expect to do for the holidays, then prioritize. Schedule time for the most important things. If you don’t have time for everything on the list, some lower priority items have to go. Do you have to go to every party you’re invited to? Can someone else host the family Christmas party this year? Can you enlist friends and family to help with the preparations? Say no to a few things that are not high on the priority list. People will not be nearly as disappointed as you think.
  3. Set a budget. Know how much money you have to spend on each person before you start shopping. Don’t pressure yourself to buy the best and most expensive version. If you don’t trust yourself, bring a friend who will make you stick to your budget. The best gifts don’t have to cost anything. I honestly believe if I gave my wife a “coupon” for a free massage, she would like that better than a diamond necklace. Remember they want your presence more than your presents.
  4. Maintain healthy habits. Enjoy your treats, but remember to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid overindulging. Keep up your exercise and meditation routines. If you don’t meditate, you should start. A few minutes of meditation can do wonders for stress. Whatever you normally do to de-stress, don’t forget to do it during the holidays.
  5. Manage family encounters. If you dread getting together with some family members, here are some options, listed in increasing severity.
  6. Set aside differences. Don’t get baited into those same old debates. If you argue with the same person every year, you already know what they are going to say. Resolve before you go in you will not waste any more time trying to set them straight. If they start, just say Merry Christmas, and talk to someone else. If there is some past slight you are still sore about, what better time to forgive than the holidays?
  7. Seek out the positive people. Instead of fretting over that relative who is always critical, think of the people you enjoy and seek them out. If you are busy with them, that means less time with negative people. You can ask the person arranging the seating to place you next to someone more supportive. Better to say, “Can you sit me next to this cousin?” than “Don’t sit me next to Aunt Martha.”
  8. Make an early exit. You can always make an appearance, and make sure those who need to see you do so. After a decent amount of time, you can say you have to go because of another commitment.
  9. Avoid certain people altogether. It is better for your mental health to forgive than to hold grudges. But if the pain is too raw, or if you know they are going to make you uncomfortable, then don’t go to the party or to their house unless you have to.
  10. Volunteer. Nothing is more in keeping with the season than helping someone in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community service. Helping others feels good and is often the best antidote for depression. You might even want to make it a new tradition.
  11. Community, Religious, or Social Events. Religious services have always been a part of my holiday tradition. With or without my family, I like being a part of them. If that is not your thing, look for other community and social events open to the public. They present low pressure opportunities to see old friends or meet new people with shared interests.
  12. Call friends and family. One year my sister was working as a missionary in Mexico. We celebrated Christmas as usual—me, my parents, and grandparents. In the afternoon, we used my iPad to call my sister on Skype. My grandparents were thrilled, not only to talk to her but to see her. It is easy these days to set up video chat online. Skype is still popular, though WhatsApp and Viber are more popular now. If you have an iPhone, Facetime is included. Bottom line, for your loved ones who are miles away, if you have a cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can contact them.
  13. Journal your feelings. I started keeping a journal in college. I journaled about things that happened to me, and how I felt about them. During bouts of depression, it was a lifeline for me. Which is why if you read my journals, you would probably think I was a basket case. But studies have shown that journaling your feelings, especially during times of grief or depression, helps people feel less depressed and less anxious. Darlene Mininni, author of The Emotional Toolkit, suggests writing for fifteen minutes three or four days in a row to start. If you don’t know what to write, you can prompt yourself by writing and answering questions like, “Why does this upset me?” or “What do I want to happen now?”
  14. Get counseling. If you can’t shake feelings of sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. I’ve listed some websites where you can search for a counselor in your area (Appendix B). But first, you might want to read this guide on what to look for in a therapist. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
  15. Remember to be grateful. The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. That’s a hint. Begin each day with just a minute or two to think of three things you are grateful for, and the rest of your day is likely to go better.
  16. Plan a post-holiday get-together. This is a way to ease any post-holiday letdown. Set a date to get together with a friend in mid or late January. This will give you something to look forward to after the holidays.

 

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In my post called “The War on Thanksgiving,” I said this. “We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.”

The point I was trying to make is not to let commercialization take over the real meaning of the holidays. Sure, I buy gifts for whoever I’m spending Christmas with. I enjoy getting presents, but I also enjoy seeing their faces when they open a gift I gave them, especially when my niece and nephew are there. They are still young enough to approach Christmas morning with unbridled joy. Isn’t that what we really want from the holidays? To give and receive joy?

So whatever you do, whether it’s decorating, baking, making the holiday dinners, trimming the tree, eating with family and friends, shopping for gifts, making gifts, volunteering, attending religious services, whatever your traditions are, or if you think it’s time to start a new tradition, do it with the intent of spreading joy. That is the surest way I know to have a happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Boxing Day, happy New Year and Dia de los Reyes. And a happy Festivus for the rest of us.

 

References

 

Kerr, M. Medically reviewed by Legg, T. J., Ph.D., PMHNP-BC. Holiday depression. Healthline Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#1

Mann, D. Emotional survival guide for the holidays. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/emotional-survival-guide-for-holidays#1

Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544

Minnini, D., PhD, MPH. (2006). The Emotional Toolkit. St. Martin’s Press. Available in libraries or at https://www.overdrive.com/media/1571599/the-emotional-toolkit

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Bhandari, S., MD. “Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Goldberg, J., MD. “Holiday depression and stress.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/holiday-depression-stress#1

 

The War on Thanksgiving

 

Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music, put up Christmas decorations, and Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store, it was sunny and almost eighty degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

 

Good or bad for business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

 

Why am I talking about this on a blog about faith and depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful, from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: The fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money. Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

 

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

 

Announcement

 

As a multi-passionate writer, I have many projects in the works. One of them is a book called The God Wrestler. Some of my most intense struggles with depression have been over issues of faith and religion. Each time I walked away feeling like Jacob when he wrestled the angel, limping, but I came through it in one piece. The angel pronounced this blessing on him.

 Gen 32:27-28 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Right now it is in the final stages of editing, making a cover, and everything that needs to be done to make it ready for publication. The book is the product of wrestling with God, the Bible, and my own demons of depression. (The demons are metaphorical, not literal). It is short, about 25,000 words. I could have made it a lot longer, but I thought people would be more likely to read a relatively short book. At this length, it says enough to make an impact but won’t be intimidating like War and Peace.

Because the holidays can be depressing to some people, I wanted to offer something to help. So I will post chapters specifically to address depression during the holidays.

Whether you struggle with depression or love someone who does, I pray something from this project will help you through the holidays and beyond. If what I went through helps anyone find happiness and meaning for their lives in spite of being depressed, it will all have been worth it.

Grace and Peace to you.

Easter 2018 – Mary Madgalene

#biblestudy #easter #hesalive #marymagdalene

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

 

Mary Magdalene has just been to the tomb and seen the stone rolled away (v. 1). She does not understand. Would any of us have understood? Of course not. The only explanation that makes sense is that someone has taken his body and moved it somewhere else. Why would anyone do that? Who knows, but how else do you explain the empty tomb?

Imagine how she must feel. She is already in terrible grief because her teacher, her friend, Jesus has died in a horrific and humiliating way. Now even the one last comfort of visiting the place of his burial has been taken away. So she runs to tell two of the disciples, Simon Peter and the “beloved disciple” we assume to be John. They are the first disciples to investigate, but they don’t understand any better than Mary (v. 9).

Did she know Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had placed him in this tomb and completed the Jewish rituals of burial on the body? I don’t think so, because she never looks for them. It would make sense to ask them if they knew what happened. Maybe they had to move the body for some reason.

Instead, she goes back to the tomb looking for answers to the questions that must be swirling in her mind. When she looks in the tomb, two angels are sitting where the body had been. All the burial cloths are there, but she is too grief-stricken to be impressed.

 

13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

 

Then for some reason, she turns around and there’s a man she thinks must be the gardener. She asks him if he took the body, and if so, where? He speaks her name, and finally she recognizes him as Jesus (v. 16).

It intrigues me that she did not recognize Jesus when she saw him. She did not recognize him when she first heard him. But when he called her by name, she knew. Her heart must have leapt straight up to heaven where Jesus was about to go. For some reason, Jesus tells her she cannot embrace him for the moment. Wouldn’t you want to if you had just received someone you love back from the dead? But he does tell her to go to the disciples and deliver this message:

 

17b  ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

 

In doing this, he commissioned her to be “the apostle to the apostles.”

Until the moment she recognizes Jesus, she is in a state of grief, questioning, and disorientation, almost to the point of despair. The mystics called this the Dark Night of the Soul. This occurs after you have encountered God in a personal way, and then you sense God’s absence. You are disoriented and maybe even despairing. But as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. Mary Magdalene was the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus because she persevered through the grief, questioning, and everything that came with her dark night.

I feel like that has been what my journey of faith has been about, persevering through the dark night. Several times, I have felt the disorientation and questioning Mary went through. And so I find encouragement in her persevering. And now I have reached a place where some of those questions are starting to be answered. I can see the first rays of the dawn. The only thing that brought me here was perseverance. I didn’t know how to get out of those dark nights and into the light, so I persevered, because it was the only thing I knew how to do.

If you are struggling with grief, questions about God and your purpose in life, or any kind of darkness and disorientation, persevere through it. Like Mary Magdalene, you just might encounter the resurrected Christ.

And now, here’s another woman of faith to deliver the Good News more powerfully than I ever could.