by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
As I was putting away my nativity sets this week, I was distracted for a moment by the depiction of the Kings, each with a gift in his hand. Many of the sets have each king from a different culture, different ages, different costumes. And I wonder: who were these men?
I will begin by asking you this question: What were their names?
Melchoir, Balthazar, Caspar… How do we know this? Their names and descriptions are not biblical, not found in our biblical story, but in our tradition.
“The Western tradition of the names of the Magi derive from an early 6th Century Greek manuscript that seems to describe a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, a church in Ravenna, Italy.
* The manuscript describes them thusly:
- “The oldest of the Magi was Melchoir, King of Arabia. He had a long gray beard and gave gold as a gift, symbolizing the acceptance of Christ as King.
- Balthazar, King of Ethiopia, was middle-aged, swarthy, bearded, and bore the gift of frankincense, symbolizing Christ as High Priest.
- Finally, Caspar was King of Tarsus, in his twenties. His gift was myrrh, which was used in making medicines. This symbolized Christ as the healer and great physician.” (1)
As we heard in our scripture lesson, Jesus received these very special visitors after his birth. We may not know their names from our biblical story, but we do know a little bit about their identities. Who were they?
- Astrologers: These men may have been astrologers and astrology was a respected science of the stars. Scientists have noted that in about 7 BCE, there was an unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter (the king star) and Saturn (the protecting star of Israel) and that is thought to be the star they followed.
- Priests: Ancient Greek historian Herodotus informs us that the magi were a “priestly caste” similar to medicine men or shaman of other cultures, and they were focused on dream interpretation. Herodotus also suggests they could be Zorastrian priests from Persia.
- Magicians – Jewish philosopher and historian Philo calls the magi and what they do, “counterfeit perversion of art, that it is usurped by charlatans and parasites but esp. by low-grade women and slaves who use charms and incantations.” (Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible) You will remember the story of Jesus in Mark 3:22-30, After Jesus has driven out many demons, the Scribes accuse Jesus of using Beelzebub to cast out demons and he asks them “How can Satan drive out Satan? A house divided against itself will certainly fall. Here, the scribes are accusing him of being a magus.)
* Whether Astrologers, Priests or Magicians, we know these wise men were from the East: Mesopotamia, Persia, or Arabia, from a different culture and a different land. They traveled a long distance to appear at the site of the birth. But we don’t know how many there were…The number “three” was associated with the three gifts. ln other religious traditions, there are eight and ten or twelve wise men.
What did they bring?
- Gold was known to be a gift for a king.
- Frankincense was burned during the temple worship, symbolic of the prayers offered up to God, our king.
- Myrrh was used to embalm the bodies of dead people, and the gift of myrrh was a hint that Jesus the King was to die.
lf we are emulating the kings in our gift giving at Christmas time, we would be encouraged to give the finest gifts – gifts of wealth and riches to those we would like to honor. And while that is a nice thought, we are not all kings. What if we have nothing to give? What if our gifts are lame? What if we have to put something together from bits of string and glue? What gift can we bring? What is your favorite, most creative gift?
Why did the Magi travel to see the newborn king? What was their motivation? HEROD!
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.
King Herod was also known as Herod the Great, but not because he was a kind man. He was “Great” because Herod built the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the scene of Jesus final encounters during the Iast week of his life here on earth. Herod also built the Temple Mount, the Herodium, and Masada, and his winter palace in Jericho.
Herod had also been given the title “King of the Jews” in 40 BC, and after consolidating his power he ruled over Judea for 33 years (Luke 1:5). The last thing he wanted was a rival over his Judean domain. Herod was so jealous and fearful of losing his position that he murdered his wife, his wife’s mother, his eldest son and two other sons lest they take his throne. (2) So suspicious and insecure was he that he called a secret meeting of religious Ieaders and extracted information about the exact time and place of the birth of the new king, Jesus.
Jesus is a threat to Herod, and maybe Herod was right to worry: Maybe Herod knew the impact this baby would have, maybe the signs he saw, the advice of the Magi accurately described what would happen in the near future. This baby, poor and homeless, would have an influence over the world and Herod knew – somehow, deep in his heart -his time was limited.
During Christmastime, as we sing the story in hymns and carols, as we reflect of the image of the manger scene, we often end the story there – with the glory of the Lord shining round about them, peace in the world and the stables filled with far away visitors, bringing gifts and singing praises, with the star hovering over the scene.
But this is not the end of the story, rather the beginning. There is now a baby to care for and protect. There is a new baby who will save us. And so as we see the star shining in the east, what should WE do? What does the birth of Christ mean in our lives?
The Magi provide an example of how we RESPOND TO the gift of CHRIST, after we see that bright shining star:
- We can come before the Lord in gratitude for the many blessings we’ve been given.
- We can brave the wrath of those in power to express our belief in Iove, compassion, mercy and forgiveness – all that makes up the Kingdom of God. We can give our best to those we love – our best gifts….
- We can transform our lives – we can go home by another road, with the knowledge that comes with experiencing the Love of God.
Howard Thurman, Great African-American theologian and poet, wrote a poem called “Gifts on My Altar” that describes how we can emulate the Magi:
I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas:
Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine:
The quiet hopes that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams: The best of all good things for those I love, A fresh new trust for all whose faith is dim. The love of life, God’s precious gift in reach of all:
Seeing in each day the seeds of the morrow,
Finding in each person the face of my brother.
I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas: Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine.
As we finish up 2018, may we remember the place of God in our lives. May we recall his saving love demonstrated in the gift of a baby 2000 years ago. May we be constantly guided upon the path by the words and messages from God remembering that no matter our missteps or our wanderings, God is always by our side, to help us when we’re lost, to pick us up when we fall, to lead us back on the right road. Our constant companion in 2019 and always. Amen.
- “Concerning the Magi and Their Names” found on https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Text/concerning_the_magi_and_their_na.htm
- J. Elsworth Kalas, Christmas from the Backside, page 46.