When Jesus was born, the ends of the earth were gathered at his cradle.
- William Barclay
When I began writing this years series of Advent columns, I thought I knew the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph en route to Bethlehem for a government-ordered census; no room for them in the crowded city until a sympathetic innkeeper offered them his stable; Mary giving birth to her first child and laying him in an animals feeding trough; and angels bursting open the night sky, frightening, then beckoning shepherds to see the Savior, who is Christ, the Lord (Luke 2:11). Soon, also, came wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1), not only to visit the child, but to bring him valuable gifts.
Nice story; wonderful pageant for children to re-enact or watch spellbound from their seats, as I did again last week when my grandchildren were transformed into an angel and a shepherd.
But I hadnt realized how very young Mary was, how well-suited Joseph was for his foster-father role, how valuable the lowly shepherds were as keepers of the sacrificial lambs, or how national politics placed the couple in the prophesied birthplace of the Son of God the night he was born.
This week Ive discovered why wise men from the East created the perfect ending to the story, and why gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the only appropriate gifts they could have brought with them. Most of all, I have a fresh vision of how thoroughly God planned his sons advent to earth, and how significant each person, place and event mentioned was to that plan.
We may find it strange to link wisdom and astrology, but that wasnt true 2,000 years ago. Scholars believe these men came from Persia (Iran today), and likely were members of the Magi, a group of holy and learned men who often combined medicine, philosophy, astrology and even the priesthood, all at the same time. They were not kings, as our pageants and carols often portray, but they certainly were wise.
Whether myth or fact, it was a common belief among ancient astrologers that if a star that hadnt been detected before appeared in the heavens, that meant a new king had been born. Thus, after discovering just such a star, the men wondered who this king could be. After exhausting their own resources they turned to the Hebrew Scriptures for information - and found their answer in Numbers 24:17: A star will come out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel.
Thats it! they must have cried, as they made plans to follow the star, wherever it led. Along with travel supplies, they also packed their camel-bags with gifts for the child: gold, the customary gift for a king; frankincense, used by the temple priests; and myrrh, a substance used for embalming, an omen of things to come for this prophet whose message would one day lead to his death.
As far as we know the wise men made only one stop along the way. If this new king were to rule Israel, someone in the capital city of Jerusalem must know where to find him. Thats where they learned the star of Jacob would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), five miles away. However, as the wise men completed their journey, back in Jerusalem an enraged King Herod, who already ruled the Jews, was devising ways to remove any competition for his throne.
Curiosity may have motivated the wise men to begin their journey, but it was God who pieced together the details, both to protect the child, and to announce his birth to the known world:
Had they not been holy men, they might not have understood Gods warning (Matthew 2:12) not to obey the Kings insincere request to tell him where the child was, so I can worship him, also (Matthew 2:8). Herod would have found Jesus eventually, but waiting for the Magis report allowed time for the holy family to get away before Herod could harm the child.
Had they not brought such expensive, yet symbolic gifts, the holy family would not have had money to live on while they were in Egypt.
Had they not been from the East, the Gentile world might not have known that the gift of salvation which sprang from the Jews was offered to them, too.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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