There’s something special about those Christmas shepherds and “prophets from the east.” It turns out, they were not only real people, but also symbols for the greatest of all people.
I was taught throughout my childhood to find Jesus Christ in every worthy story I heard, in every experience I had, and every person I met. This advice has served me well, especially as I contemplate what Christmas really means amid the hustle, bustle, and commotion that unfortunately comes with the season.
It is said that because the word “mas” means “more” in Spanish, Christmas should really be interpreted as “more Christ.” Is it possible, then, that we can see more of Christ through the familiar characters in the story of the Nativity?
THE SHEPHERDS: A TYPE OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Imagine what an honor it must have been to be among the first to witness those special preliminary moments of our Savior’s mortal existence on that tranquil, holy night.
After a rather startling revelation from an angel (1), the shepherds came to the manger “with haste” and observed the Son of God lying in a humble manger, fit for a servant yet made for a King.
But the story doesn’t end there! The shepherds, “when they had seen it…made known abroad…concerning this child” (Luke 2:17). These shepherds could not contain their joy and became the first missionaries of the dispensation of Christ.
David O. McKay, ninth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said,
“The shepherds did not say, ‘I wonder if this be true.’ They did not say, ‘Let us go and see if this thing be true’; they said, ‘Let us go and see this thing which is come to pass which the Lord hath made known unto us’…What would you give-you who may not have that assurance-to have in your hearts that same confidence that Christ is born, that Christ lives, that God had heralded his birth by angels in heaven? All doubt would be banished, all worry concerning our purpose here in life would cease. That is what such a testimony means.” (2)
What can these lowly shepherds teach us about Christ?
- Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and the “Shepherd…of your souls” (1 Peter 2:15). He knows his flock and leads all of His sheep (us) with perfect grace, compassion, humility, and integrity.
- The sacrificial rites of the Law of Moses were never about animals. They represented “that great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34:14), our Savior, the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
- Like Christ, the shepherds were “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16) and were valiant missionaries
Therefore, it is only fitting the shepherds would be in attendance at the Great Shepherd’s sacred birth.
THE WISE MEN: BRINGING JEWS AND GENTILES TOGETHER
We don’t know much about the wise men. In fact, we don’t even know if there were exactly three. But we do know they came “from the east to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1). This little tidbit informs us they were clearly Gentiles, if not Gentile prophets.
If this is to be believed, having both Jew and Gentile receive the invitation to join in the celebration of Jesus’ early years was a sign of not only social and political inclusion, but also religious inclusion. The message is clear: All are invited to partake of the goodness of Christ (2 Nephi 26:28).
The wise men presented to the Savior three precious gifts, each possessing Christlike symbolism:
- Gold: a symbol of royalty. Gold was most commonly presented to kings, so why not the King of Kings?
- Frankincense: a symbol of God’s name (Malachi 1:11). This resin was also used to prepare sacrifices.
- Myrrh: oil used to anoint princes or kings
If we were to go with the tradition of the “three” wise men for the sake of drawing more parallels, we could say that each wise man represents each member of the Godhead: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost (Spirit), who, together, provide us daily gifts.
WHAT DO THE SHEPHERDS AND WISE MEN TEACH US ABOUT CHRIST?
Christmas 2011 in Oshakati, Namibia
I have fallen victim to the commercialism of Christmas too many times. I miss the days when I was serving a mission for the Lord in the beautiful country of Namibia, located in southwestern Africa.
Two years ago, my mom sent us missionaries a big box of small toys and candy to pass out to the children of Oshakati, Namibia, on Christmas Eve. The smiles on each child’s face instantly proved that the joy of Christmas is found in serving and observing the joy in others. Just as sacrifices in Moses’ day were never about animals, worldly gifts in our day are never about the gifts themselves.
So what, then, are the shepherds and wise men teaching us about the true meaning of Christmas? There are, of course, many ways to answer this question. In my life, the shepherds are telling me to always be ready and willing to come when Christ beckons me, and to be diligent in sharing His tidings of great joy to all I meet, whether through words, music, or service.
The wise men remind me to give my own “gifts” to the Savior this year as a token of my personal sacrifice to become more like Him.
There are many things we can learn from the Nativity story and the characters that so humbly represent where the focus should be this season and always: on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who condescended into mortality out of love for us and devotion to His Father.
May we always remember the reason for the season!
(1) Luke 2:8-14
(2) Man May Know for Himself: Teachings of President David O. McKay, compiled by Clare Middlemiss [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1967], 466.