"When Jesus was born, the ends of the earth were gathered at his cradle."
- William Barclay
In rethinking the Christmas story, as I do each year, I'm struck by the unusual mix of character and detail: The young peasant girl and her carpenter-husband having their first child - in a stable, no less; a sky full of angels to announce the birth; and a group of ordinary shepherds running down the hillside "to see this thing which has come to pass" (Luke 2:15).
But wise men - wealthy, too, judging by the expensive gifts they brought with them, what were they doing there? Or is there some usually missed significance to the role played by those learned men who, it would seem, should have been guided by maps and well-traveled roadways instead of a moving star.
Ah, yes, as further research reveals, these men "from the East" created the perfect ending to this never-forgotten story - and I have a fresh vision of just how thoroughly God planned his son's advent to earth, including why each person, place and seemingly insignificant detail was a necessary part of this blessed event.
We may find it strange to link wisdom to astrology today, but that wasn't true 2,000 years ago. Scholars believe these men came from Persia (Iran today) and that they likely were members of the "Magi," a group of holy and learned men who often combined medicine, philosophy, astrology and even the priesthood in their life-long quest for truth. 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 previously undetected star 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 the answer in Numbers 24:17: "A star will come out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel."
"That's it!" they must have cried, as they made plans to follow the star, wherever it led. Along with travel supplies, they also packed their bags with gifts for the child: gold, the customary gift for a king; frankincense, for use by the temple priests; and myrrh, a substance used for embalming, an unknown omen of things to come for this king 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. That's when they learned the "Star of Jacob" would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), five miles away. However, as the wise men continued their journey, back in Jerusalem an enraged king Herod, who already ruled the Jews, began devising ways to remove any competition for his throne.
Curiosity might 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 world. For example:
- Had they not been holy men, they might not have understood God's warning (Matthew 2:12) not to obey the King's 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 Magi's report allowed time for the holy family to get away before he could harm the child.
- Had they not brought such expensive gifts, the family would not have had money to live on while they were in hiding in Egypt.
- And perhaps most important of all, had they not been "from the East," the Gentile world might not have known that the gift of salvation which sprang from the promised Jewish Messiah was offered to them, too (John 1:12).
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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