This year, I’m sharing a bit about an Advent activity my church did last Advent during our time dedicated to children. Each Sunday of Advent, we introduced a few new characters from the Christmas story, each a tiny porcelain figure. By Christmas, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, and the shepherd were at the manger, under the star, but the Magi had not yet arrived. Each week, children were invited to search for the week’s figures after church each week, sharing where they found them with other children so that everyone could find them. If they shared the location with the adult who led children’s time that Sunday, they received a small stone with one of that week’s figures painted on it as a prize, so that by the end of Advent, they had a Holy Family + Angel nativity scene.
Our children span from 2-12, and some are very familiar and some very unfamiliar with the Christmas story, so I aimed for 5-8 minutes of attentive time and tried to make no assumptions about their knowledge. I briefly told the story this way:
The first person who learned that God was coming to live among people was Mary, but he soon told Joseph. Then he told poor shepherds. We know from these stories that God cared about women and the poor and trusted them with this important news before God trusted anyone else.
But the story of Jesus is for everyone. Along with Mary and Joseph, who were Jewish, God told a number of people the Bible calls “wise men from the East.” We don’t think this just means that they were super smart. We think it means that they were magi. Magi were astronomers who studied the stars, but they werebl also associated with a different religion–Zoroastrianism. Zorastrian priests were very learned in the sciences, and they were always seeking new knowledge. The Bible tells us that the magi knew something that others didn’t–that the baby that had been born to Mary was very special! This reminds us that God wants the whole world to know how important Jesus is. When the angel Gabriel told Joseph that the baby’s nickname would be Immanuel, which means God is with Us, God didn’t just mean that God would be with the Jewish people but that God would be with all the people of the world.
In our manger scene, there are three wise men, which is traditional in many nativities. But we don’t know how many they were or what they looked at. Christians in Syria traditionally say that there were 12 of them! What is important is that God told people from all over the known world that Jesus was born, and whether people were poor and disrespected, like the shepherds, or rich and admired, like the magi, they should come and worship him.
Now that the magi have arrived, our nativity scene is complete! [Show it to the children. Some will notice that an important figure–Baby Jesus–is missing!]
You are right! It’s not complete! Today, we are going to talk about one more Christmas tradition. This one is from France, and people living in places that the French colonized, like Haiti and New Orleans, celebrate today as Three Kings Day, because sometimes the magi are also called “kings.” Hispanic cultures have a similar celebration. To celebrate, they bake a cake–and one of the slices has the tiny Jesus figure in it. Whoever gets the piece with the Jesus in it is the king or queen–or we might say monarch–of Christmas. We have a cake celebrating Epiphany to share after church today, so you may have a piece if you and your grown ups agree. Or, if you don’t like cake, I have a balloon for you instead.*
*As always, it is best if you know the children in front of you. If you bake your Three Kings cake, you can make a version that accommodates allergies, or else you can request a gluten/dairy/egg/nut free one from a bakery. It’s always a good idea to have a non-food alternative available to children. Today, a Christmas ornament, balloon, or small coin might be a good alternative.