If you have a nativity scene displayed at your house this Christmas, you might have something there that doesn’t belong.
In this series on mistakes and inaccuracies in the way we retell the stories of Jesus’ birth, we’ve already seen one way that our decorations are wrong: Jesus probably wasn’t turned away from an inn and born in an isolated stable. Now we need to talk about a couple of other examples of Christmas Confusion. Oh, it’s nothing serious. But maybe if we dispel some of the confusion we can discover something about this story we haven’t seen before.
We’ll start here: If you have a wise man or two or three in your nativity scene, that’s not strictly right. There wasn’t any number of wise men at Jesus’ birth.
They seem to have been convinced that “the King of the Jews” had been born when they saw his star rise in the night sky, according to Matthew, , the author of the Gospel that tells us about them. I suppose it’s possible that God gave them a sneak preview. But taking the story at face value suggests that they left on their journey, at the very earliest, on the night Jesus was born. And it’s unlikely they’d start a journey that long without some planning. Unless they happened to have some gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around, they needed time to procure their gifts. They needed to assemble supplies. You might remember that King Herod had the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed, “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” By the time they got to Bethlehem, Jesus and his parents were in a house, either the house in which Jesus was likely born, or another. He might have already been walking!
We sing a Christmas song about the visit of the the wise men — “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” It’s a good song and everything, except for the fact that the description of the main characters is entirely wrong.
We don’t know that there were three of them. Some traditions say there were twelve or more. Popularly, three is the number because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The song gives specific significance to each gift: gold in a crown, because he’s a king; frankincense, to burn as a sacrifice to God; myrrh, as a perfume used to anoint the dead. Certainly that all works in the song, as a convenient way to emphasize who Jesus was, but Matthew doesn’t say any of that. All three of those items were valuable because they were rare, but also because they were useful in various ways.
Traditionally, the wise men have names: Melchior, a king of Persia, Caspar, a king of India, and Balthazar, a king of Arabia. I can remember, as a kid, wondering why in the world they were called “kings” in the song. It’s probably because of Isaiah 60:3, where God tells a renewed Israel, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” He tells them that “the riches of the nations will come” to them, and includes gold and incense in the list.
Matthew, who certainly isn’t shy about applying Old Testament prophecy to the events around Jesus’ birth, doesn’t explicitly quote Isaiah 60 — though who’s to say that it doesn’t fit? He certainly doesn’t call the wise men kings. He uses the word “magi,” which the NIV and some other English translations just transliterate. But the King James Version, and I guess most other English translations, call them “wise men.”
Magi is itself a transliteration of a Persian word into Greek. It can refer to a class of scholars/astrologers/priests from Persia, practitioners of Zoroastrianism. It stands to reason that the Magi in Matthew were from Persia, as Matthew tells us that they came “from the East,” though he doesn’t get any more specific than that.
They were apparently astrologers; everyone knows that they were alerted to the birth of Jesus by seeing a star “as it rose” — presumably a star they had never charted before. Astrology was a respected science in much of the world; it required knowledge of the night sky, some skill at mathematics, and in a world in which science and religion weren’t sharply delineated, it was thought to allow a person to discover the will of the gods. For this reason Magi were often in the service of kings, as were wise men in Egypt and Babylon. In fact, Daniel was appointed chief of the Babylonian equivalent of magi.
Why the star signified to them the birth of “the King of the Jews,” we’re not told. Did they know, somehow, of Numbers 24:17? In any case, the star led them to go on a journey to “worship him” or “pay him homage.”
There are warnings in the Old Testament against trying to divine the will of God by interpreting omens, and it could be said that Matthew’s Magi were doing just that. (Of course, those warnings apply to Jews, not non-Jews.) Philo, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus who lived in Egypt, used the word magi to describe the Egyptian sorcerers who opposed Moses and Aaron, and Balaam, the prophet who tried to curse the Israelites. Some ancient writers, including Philo, admired the Persian Magi. Some seemed to fear or even despise them as charlatans.
Still, in Jesus’ day the Magi would have been considered, at the very least, exotic. Strange, even suspicious; they were non-Jews who believed they could interpret the movements of the stars. They almost certainly worshipped other gods. But that all seems to fit with Matthew’s drift, doesn’t it? While the current King of the Jews doesn’t know where to find him and, far from worshiping him, wants to murder him, while the people close by who should have recognized him are disturbed by the news, non-Jewish, pagan sorcerers from far away travel months to honor him and bring him gifts.
How hard it can be for God to get our attention sometimes! And other times, when our eyes are open and we expect to see him, how easy it can be notice him in the everyday events of our lives. And how easy worship can seem. Whatever the reputation of Magi in general in Matthew’s day, he wants us to join his wise men in traveling whatever distance we must and giving whatever we have to worship him.
Interesting, too, that God reached the Magi where they were. I mean that literally, of course; they were in their home country, “in the East," when they saw the star. But I also mean it metaphorically. They were looking at the stars, so God showed them a star. They were experts in their craft, so God led them to Jesus through their craft. It doesn’t seem that God needs us to jump through his hoops. He doesn’t sit sullenly, waiting for us to find our way to him. He comes to us, where we are. Just before he tells us about the Magi, Matthew interprets Jesus’ birth in terms of Isaiah’s “Immanuel” prophecy — “God With Us.” In Jesus, God is with us.
I’m thinking of the way you connect a bluetooth device to a phone or computer; it has to be “discoverable.” The processor has to be able to “see” the device, and has to have the proper language to connect to it. In Jesus, God is discoverable. He makes sure to speak our language, he shows up where are, he puts himself in our line of sight. We don’t necessarily need to remove ourselves from the events of our daily lives to see him. Maybe we just need to keep our eyes open for his light as we go about our lives.
May you be blessed this Christmas to see his light once again. And may we all bring our gifts and honor him.