The story of the Magi at the birth of Jesus simply enchants the imagination. Over the years I occasionally dig into researching it for fun. It seems it has taken on more characteristics century-by-century as it is told this time of year. The essentials of the story are really quite sparce in Matthew’s telling and he is the only evangelist reporting their existence. Today, we celebrate its feast.
The core of the story is: the Magi represent all races and nations who come to adore the long awaited Messiah. In other words, Gentiles, as well as Jews, are welcome into the enterprise of redemption. That’s all Matthew intended to say.
Magi means magicians; they were Gentile purveyors of occult knowledge, in this case, astrology, because as Matthew reports, they followed a star, a very unique star. But, here go the additions to the story over centuries: in the second century, A.D., scholars focused on typology or the connecting of events in the Hebrew Scriptures to events in the Christian Scriptures. Thus, a passage in Isaiah said the Kings of the Earth would journey from the East on camels bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Messiah. So, whola! We get the camels and the journey from the East. Matthew does include the gifts, however. In the third century, A.D., the Egyptian scholar, Origen, reasoned if there were three gifts, there had to be three visitors. And so, we get the number of Kings. Along the course of history, someone made them ‘Kings’ to emphasize that leaders throughout the world were worthy of meeting this new King of humble birth. The word ‘king’ means inherited authority whereas ‘emperor’ or any other such word for a leader would mean a title that was won through war or political achievement. A fifth century, A.D., scholar, the acerbic Jerome, extended the roots of the Magi making each one represent the lineage of each of Noah’s three sons after they disembarked from the ark. (Sorry for the surly pun here.) The initial writer of Noah’s story knew of only three races at the time: Semitics, Africans, and Asians. Jerome, a Croatian, elevated his heritage with poetic license and made one of the Kings, Indo-European. That may be reading too much into Jerome’s motives, but after his addition, the Kings are described as Semitic, African, and Indo-European. But like British novelist, Norah Lofts, I like to think one was Asian. Lofts wrote the novel, How Far to Bethlehem? and made one of the Magi a poor Korean astrologer.
That is a brief summary of the wonderful history of the story of the Magi. Laden with legend and apocryphal meaning and metaphor, the story can make us think of the imperishable truth that we are all welcome at the table of believers in Jesus Christ and Redemption.
Another lovely story of the Magi was written by Henry Van Dyke, an American writer of the early 20th century. You may be familiar with this story, The Other Wise Man, in which Artaban, a Persian astrologer, noticed the star from his observatory and secured some precious gems as gifts to give the newborn when he found him. Artaban was determined to meet this new little king, the savior of the human race, but he got delayed along the way helping beggars and sick people and giving them his pearl, ruby, and sapphire gems. He continued searching for Jesus and missing the other Magi in his travels for 33 long years. In the end, Artaban lay dying in a street when a young girl attending him heard a voice say to him: “…in as much as you have done this to others, you have done it to me…”
Artaban had finally met his King and Messiah. I suggest we look at the story of the Magi and let it surface some direction in our lives. For instance:
1. Take to the road. Begin a journey of looking for Jesus. Be daring. Follow His call.
2. Give gifts along the way. Give of your talents, your treasures, and mostly yourself.
3. Be courageous. Do not be afraid of the night or any darkness; it’s the only way to see the guiding star.
You will thus make 2020 a very happy year! All of you, no matter what burdens you carry on your camel as you travel, all of you, friends and Anonymous Angels, are welcome at the manger!
You might enjoy the anticipatory feeling in Enya’s song, “Long, Long Journey”. It would have been what the Magi experienced and maybe some of us as we seek Christ in our lives.