A Christmas detail I’ve long overlooked

I have sat through dozens of carol concerts, Christmas services and festive homilies in my lifetime. I know the story of Jesus’ birth, and the surrounding events, inside out. I suspect most of us who have grown up in Christian homes (or even around families that only go to church at Christmas) feel the same way. What new thing are we possibly going to hear this Christmas that we haven’t heard before?

But the Bible is a wonderful book. No matter how many times you read it there is often something new to find. Yet, I am always surprised when I see something new in a passage that is particularly familiar to me. Though this is a detail that many of you have probably noted long ago (and therefore can’t understand my wonder), here is something that only just struck me this year.

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, he writes:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I wonder if you have seen the new thing too (which may not be new to you)? It’s not the lack of mention of three wise men – everybody knows that old red herring!

Perhaps some of Matthew’s following comments might help. He says in 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

Can you see it now?

I knew about Herod’s command to kill all the children in Bethlehem under 2. I knew about Mary & Joseph fleeing to Egypt so they wouldn’t be caught up in the melee. What I (rather unthinkingly) failed to clock was the reason for Herod’s decision to aim for everyone under 2 (I know right!? How dense am I?!)

Here are two little details that I have failed to notice for the best part of 30 years. Mt 2:11 clearly tells us Jesus was found by the wise men in a house. The wise men – despite all the Christmas imagery to the contrary – were not rocking up the day Jesus was born to give him presents. Well, granted, there would be at least a few days between their visit.

But, Mt 2:16 makes clear that Herod took a while to realise he had been tricked by the wise men and sought to kill all males under 2 “according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men”. In other words, the wise men were visiting Jesus up to any time within 2 years after his birth. That’s why Herod goes mad and wants to kill all males in Bethlehem under 2 – this usurper could be any age within that bracket and this is the least messy option to deal with him.

Anyway, there you go, a small Christmas detail I’ve never really noticed. Jesus was probably just under two when the wise men saw him and Herod got after him. He wasn’t in a manger, he was in a house. Life had returned to some normality (for nearly two years) before the wise men rocked up.

It’s not exactly hidden away in the account at all. Staggering what an unquestioning look at Christmas imagery will do for you!