(Originally published on January 3, 2011 – edited January 5, 2015)
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2:1-2
I love this gospel story of the Epiphany. I imagine the Magi (The Wise Men) following the star and journeying through vast deserts on camelback to a distant land in search of a newborn king. And discovering their hearts’ desire in the most unexpected of places.
It has occurred to me recently that my “understanding” of the Magi hasn’t really changed much since I was a child. I’ve always pictured them as mystical and exotic; richly robed kings or emirs driven by an ‘unearthly desire’ to find Jesus. Did they know he was born in poverty? Did they know that he would change the world? Why were they driven to find him? And upon finding him in such humble surroundings why did they prostrate themselves as if he were a king? And why the gifts? Why gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Legend and tradition tell us more: The Three Kings (three gifts were presented but the Gospel never tells us the number of Magi) were named Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. Early Christian art depicts the three men as coming from Europe, Asia, and Africa. And growing up my nativity set at home would show them likewise. Tradition also tells us the significance of the gifts – gold: a gift fit for a king; frankincense: which is burned during prayer; myrrh: which is a perfume most often associated with burial – a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death and suffering. Another tradition (brought to the U.S. by European immigrants) involves writing the initials of the three kings’ names above the main door of the home to confer blessings on the occupants for the New Year. For example, 20 + C + M + B + 16.
I still find some comfort in the imagined Wise Men of my childhood – these three; certain of their mission; moving toward the star without question; and knowing when they found the Christ-child that He was THE ONE.
But how do I relate to this ideal in my own life? Where is my certainty? Where is my mission? Where is my star?
I think of how I sometimes miss the obvious – and maybe my star is burning brightly and I just can’t (or won’t) see it. Perhaps my mission is to continue to question; to journey; to “look to the east”. Maybe I need to find my certainty in my own heart and soul. God has truly blessed me – what wonder do I seek to be assured of His love? It’s likely (for me) that I need to look right here; right now.
There’s a message from the Magi for me today – they were immigrants. How do I accept strangers into my life; my home; my country? How do I open my heart when others seemed to be obsessed with building walls and strengthening borders? Jesus was born in the most humble of circumstances. How do I treat those who are living in poverty; in despair? Maybe it’s time for me to prostrate myself before them. Isn’t that the message of Jesus? Isn’t that what the Magi were truly following?
This image of the Magi isn’t as “warm and fuzzy” as those cute little figures I remember under my tree as a kid. But perhaps my challenge is to follow a new star.
P.S. Attached is a link to “A Child of the Poor”