Over the course of these four weeks in Advent, I’d like to reflect a little bit on some of the side characters that make their way into my living room or study each year and how they help me “Prepare the way” for Christmas to come.
Today, I’d like you to meet the Wise Men.
The inside reads, “To see the baby Jesus of course, don’t you ever pay attention in church?”
Who were they?
They appear in Matthew’s story of the Birth of Jesus. They are simply called, “Wise Men from the East.” In some translations the word Magi is used – I like that. Others call them astrologers. The familiar hymn calls them “Three Kings.” My kids and I at home affectionately call them “Wise Guys.” Whoever they were, they were Gentiles – outside the faith community of the scriptures. Many pieces of art depict at least one camel among them portraying a great distance they had to overcome to find Bethlehem. They were familiar with astrological movements, and they had a spirituality that believed that world events could be interpreted by reading the stars. Based on the gifts they brought, they had financial resources to back not only their journey but the generosity poured out on the holy family.
Were there three?
No one really knows if there were three Magi. We assign them that number based on the three gifts they brought Jesus. The Great Tradition has assigned three names to them – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. I always thought Balthazar was the toughest name, but somehow always like Melchior best. Most nativity sets and Christian art throughout the years picture three Magi, so it seems a common understanding that there were three. The Hymn, “We Three Kings” seems to solidify that image for us. I did one year however have six Wise Men in the Christmas pageant and the ceiling didn’t cave in on us, so I think it is OK to open up our understanding of this little band of generous seeking pilgrims.
What did they seek?
Whatever lore, legends, prophesies and stories they must have heard, they interpreted the “star” to be a sign that the new king had arrived. They knew he was special and sought him out. I wonder what they thought about when they arrived at Herod’s palace (the place of the King) and he had no idea what they were talking about, and saw the newborn Jesus among displaced peasants from rural Galilee. As a true act of faith they never seem to doubt who he is, as they bow before him and offer him gifts.
How about that star?
It is hard to say what it was – a supernova from a distance? A comet? A sign only they could see? Who knows. Many have made speculations as to the science of what happened, but that is not the point of the story. The point is that they were looking, and they saw a sign that led them to Jesus. As far as Advent is concerned that is all we truly need to know. What signs point us to Jesus? Are we paying attention? What keeps us from seeing? For me, the Wise Men embody the openness to a new thing God is doing, even though God has been up to it all along. Sometimes it takes an outsider with fresh eyes to see it. We could learn a lot from these Magi. I know I do each year.
What about the gifts?
As you can imagine – the gifts have meaning. Gold is the gift for a king – Jesus is the new king, and brings a new kingdom to bear. Frankincense – is the gift for a priest, Jesus is the great High Priest as the letter to the Hebrews proclaims so well (Hebrews 7-8). The third gift, myrrh, was used for burial (prefiguring Jesus’ death and sacrifice). In a sense the Magi set up the rest of the Gospel story. In the Wise Men we see those supposedly outside the faith witness their faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and offer all they have to serve his mission. Are we paying attention to others we label “outside the faith?”
There are lots of traditions around the Three Kings. The liturgical year designates January 6 as Epiphany, when this story is told. In some countries people do not exchange gifts until Epiphany (Personally I can;t wait that long!). Many of us in the U.S. set up our Nativity sets with them gathered around the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds and animals without thinking too much about it. Let me offer something I learned from a beloved mentor years ago: Start your Wise Men on the other side of the house, living room or office. Each week as Christmas draws closer, move your Wise Men closer to the crèche. In our home we come back from church in Advent, sing the chorus to “We Three Kings” and move them. Some years they complete their journey on Christmas Eve. Sometimes they arrive on Christmas Day. Other years we wait for the 6th. It is up to you…As my collection of Nativity sets has grown. I now have Wise Men travelling all over the house, and one set in my study – one year we even had a Magi traffic jam – so you should beware of unforeseen consequences. These Wise Men can take on a life of their own! (I’m sure there is an Advent lesson in there somewhere too…)
Over time I have come to see myself in the Wise Men. Not because I too ride a camel, but because each Advent I have come to see these four weeks that precede Christmas as a time of personal journey, to dwell in the Word so to speak, and become part of the story. As I move those Wise Men each week, and see my children get excited about singing and moving them too, I somehow feel closer to the manger myself. It helps me to think of the gifts we share among family and friends not as the enemy of Christmas as so many Christians want to claim, but as a further expression of the gift God gives to us in the Christ child, and the generosity of spirit first shared by outsiders who had no right by the day’s standards to come and worship him. Neither do we; and yet we, pay homage in our hearts, in our preparations, and in our reminders to one another that God is near, and getting closer, and in faith we take one step closer (on a camel or otherwise) to meet him. The wisdom of the Magi is to join them on the journey, one week at a time. As you share your gifts among your families, friends and even the least of these among you in the weeks to come, become one of the Magi giving your gift to others, as if that gift goes to the baby Jesus. You’ll never look at getting gifts for your loved ones the same way again.
May your Advent journeys be rich and rewarding as we step ever closer to Jesus.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet (Micah 5:2): “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:1-12)