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Those Wise Men

Following the birth of Jesus wise men—“magi”—came from east to find the king of the Jews. They told Herod, himself the titular king of the Jews, “we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

We know Herod would eventually have all male children two years and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region slain. The parents and Child had fled to Egypt, but Herod showed he would accept no challenge to his kingship.

The wise men (the same translation was used to describe those associated with Daniel in Babylon) most likely were astrologers, priests of Zoroastrianism. We do not know how many traveled from the east. We all know the tradition that there were three, each bringing a gift. The text, however, does not say. Eastern traditions say there were twelve. We do not know.

But they were drawn by the star God set in the heavens to declare His Son. They came with great gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were valuable gifts, gifts for a king. But it was not the gifts that were as important as the fact that these travelers “fell down and worshiped” the child (2:11).

T.S. Eliot, the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, writes in his poem “Journey of the Magi” (using the imagined voice of one of these wise men): “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” That is an echo of what Herod experienced; He saw the Birth as a death to his kingship. The magi must have recognized the Birth as the death of their religion and their priestly duty, “the old dispensation,” Eliot calls it.

Their reaction was not to resist like Herod, but rather to worship. The Birth of the Word as flesh is a threat to each of us and our way of life. It will cause a death, but how will we respond—by lashing out in anger or by falling down to worship? If the latter, we will be like the imagined magi in Eliot’s poem: “I should be glad of another death,” a death that gives us our own new birth. And that is why the Child came.