The Christmas season (Christmas Tide) is winding down. January 5 is the twelfth day of Christmas. Have fun celebrating the birth of the Christ child!
What comes next is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “making known.” It celebrates the fact that Jesus came to all the peoples of the world, not just to the Jewish people. The first recognition of Jesus by non-Jews was the visitation of “We Three Kings from Orient Are.” That episode conjures up visions of Christmas pageants and children in bathrobes with paper crowns. Let’s try to get back to the truth of the matter by looking at the historical source material, the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew tells us that “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and are come to worship him.'”
The time and place can be fixed with some precision. Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, ruled, at the time of Jesus’ birth, by Herod (called “the Great”), a client king of Rome. Herod is remembered for his lavish building programs and his cruelty. He was so suspicious of rivals that he had several members of his own family killed. Herod himself died around 4 B.C. or perhaps 1 B.C.
To this embittered man appeared “wise men from the East.” The term “wise men” translates the Greek word “Magoi,” the plural of “Magos,” which appears to refer to members of the priestly caste in Persia, then part of the Parthian Empire, which was in fact to the east of Jerusalem. Matthew does not call the wise men kings nor does he say there were three of them.
The wise men say they have seen a star. In childhood pictures, the Three Kings are literally following a star that moves ahead of them, but that does not seem to be what Matthew is describing. Instead, the three Magoi seem to be following what we might call an astrological indication. A particular star in a particular constellation has told them of a wonder to be seen among the Jews, and so they have traveled to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to find out what is going on.
We can imagine Herod’s consternation when he hears from these distinguished foreigners that someone else has been born king of the Jews. Matthew tells us that Herod inquired from his scholars whether there was any prophecy about where the coming king of the Jews would be born. They answered that, according to the Book of Micah, the promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. And so Herod sent the Magoi to Bethlehem with orders to return if they found anything looking like a baby king, “so that I may come and worship him also.” These words of Herod drip with irony and menace.
Matthew goes on to say that the Magoi did travel on until they came to where the child was. Interestingly, Matthew does not say that the Magoi found Jesus in Bethlehem, nor that the Magoi showed up only days after Jesus’ birth. They may have found Jesus in Nazareth, which was his home. The Magoi are said to have presented rich gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Holy Family might well have turned these gifts into cash when they decided to flee to Egypt to avoid danger from Herod. For Herod, once he realized that the Magoi did not return, determined to rid himself of a possible rival by ordering that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two years should be killed.
So that was the beginning of how Jesus was made known to the peoples of the earth: a murderous king, three distinguished pagans, and a scholarly prophecy. That’s not the way we might have written it, but God often acts in unexpected ways.