Did you know that the nativity scene is a lie? The wise men weren’t there. When they did show up there were probably more than 3 of them, Jesus wasn’t a newborn, and the king ordered one of the most horrific massacres in all of recorded history, a Christmas bloodbath that would make Stephen King cringe.
The actual manger scene found in nativities is taken from Luke 2, the chapter so famously read by Linus when Charlie Brown was all confused about Christmas. That’s where you hear about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus being visited by shepherds who had been visited by angels. No mention there of wise guys with gifts.
The story of the Magi is only recorded in the book of Matthew. The second chapter says they showed up looking for the king of the Jews. This search didn’t go over well with Herod who considered himself the king of the Jews, a title he had brown-nosed plenty of Romans to get. Herod valued his power and didn’t like the idea of some other king arriving on the scene. Who were these strange visitors and why did they think a king had been born?
All we really know about the Biblical Magi is that they were distinguished foreigners from the East. They were astrologers. The mystic nature of their work later led to the English term magic. They’ve been traditionally called Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. Those names come from a Greek manuscript probably written in Alexandria in the early 6th century. At some point during the centuries they were even called kings and we ended up with a slow song to sing during grade school plays with children who can’t keep those hats from falling over their eyes.
So what in the world brought these guys to Judea when Jesus was born? If you know your nativity scenes you may have answered a star. Ding ding winner.
The arrival had been awaited for centuries. The magi knew the fourth oracle of Balaam from Numbers 24 in the Torah (Old Testament). Written about 1,500 years earlier, the passage says in part:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
If you know your ancient stuff like these scholars, that passage comes with a handy address but they also used these words from the prophet Micah:
“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
That’s the modern equivalent of saying that in a few hundred years a savior will be born in Twin Peaks. Not exactly the biggest town, so when you see a rare light in the sky there you should probably check it out.
So King Herod was ticked and told the Magi to get back to him when they found this king so he could worship him. Really, he just wanted to kill the potential rival child. The Magi followed the star and found the right house. At this time they delivered their famous gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense which George Bailey’s son Pete is still trying to spell if he’s anything like me. When they saw the young child they hit their knees in submission and worship before leaving town a different way so Herod wouldn’t know.
The evil king was enraged and ordered mass infanticide, the murder of every child 2 years old and under in Bethlehem. This event is remembered as the Massacre of the Innocents. That’s how we get a rough idea of how long it took the Magi to get to Bethlehem. They told Herod when they saw the star and he went back as far as two years to find his target.
We’ve had many traditions passed down to us over the centuries. The first nativity was created by St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century. Who knows how many variations have come and gone. The historic birth of Jesus of Nazareth was actually around March on our calendar, but that’s a story for another year.
Many religions offer stories of who God is and what he has to do with us. Christianity is the only belief system that says God entered our world to actually join in human suffering. That’s the complete opposite of sitting by and watching the world burn. That’s what the Incarnation is all about. That’s why the Magi bowed.
History is filled with despicable behavior by people claiming to act in the name of Christ. They should read some of those Gospels because Jesus never commanded anything but love. So regardless of where you stand on all this, I think we’ll all be in a better place this year if we start rocking some love for each other.