The Magi were late arrivals to the Christmas party. Tradition says the three wise men came sailing into Bethlehem twelve days after the holy natal night, but some scholars think they actually arrived more than a year or two after Jesus’ birth. The truth is we don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter. All we know is that the trio arrived from the exotic Orient to worship a newborn child: Melchior bearing a chest of shining gold, Caspar with fragrant frankincense, and Balthazar with a cup of bitter myrrh. In the Christmas saga, the three wise men personify learning, knowledge, and ancient wisdom, not to mention the eternal human longing to understand divine purpose. Moreover, the gifts they bring have more than their intrinsic value. They’re also symbols: gold for an earthly king; frankincense for a divine being; myrrh for the human pain and suffering that is to come. “King and God and sacrifice” in the words of the familiar Christmas hymn that celebrates the three travelers.
Real or imaginary, the Magi are undoubtedly an enigmatic trio. Led by an exceedingly bright star that rose in the East and came to rest above the little town of Bethlehem, they traveled afar, or so the story goes, to see for themselves a miraculous child, the long-prophesied “King of the Jews.” We know very little about the Magi; to be honest, we’re not even sure of their names or countries of origins. Traditionally, Melchior is a Persian; Balthazar, an Ethiopian; and Caspar: some say he was from Tarsus, while others believe he came to Bethlehem all the way from India.
Wherever they came from and whenever they actually arrived to pay homage to the new infant, the stately entrance of the Magi adds a dark dose of political intrigue to the otherwise peaceful plot of the Christmas story. Like the Magi, Herod, King of Judea, had heard rumors of the birth of a new Messiah, the long-awaited “King of the Jews,” competition he neither needed nor desired. To eliminate this potential threat to his throne, Herod hatched a plot: he welcomed the three itinerant wise men and asked them where to find the baby: “Tell me when you have found him so that I, too, may go and worship.” But not to worry, friends; remember: these are the Magi—truly wise men—so they’re not about to fall into such a transparent trap. Warned in a dream of Herod’s deadly intentions for the newborn, the Magi present their gifts to Jesus and, bypassing the jealous local king, return to their homelands by an alternative route. (Would that the story ended here, but sadly Herod decided to leave nothing to chance and ordered the execution of all male babies recently born in Bethlehem. Another dream, another warning and Jesus and his parents were able to flee just in the nick of time.)
As for the Magi, off they go, disappearing into the desert night, never to be seen or heard from again. Some folk believe that no wise men have been seen since, but I think that’s too harsh a judgement. Tutu and Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Lincoln, and King; I’m sure you can think of other wise men and wise women, too; people willing to follow a star, to seek the truth, and to bear witness to wonder. God knows, we need their wisdom more than ever these days!
And so concludes the Christmas story. No matter your own faith or belief, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I say it like that because I believe the sentiment is not so much about a specific holiday or religious tradition as it is about the ANGELS’ message to those startled SHEPHERDS on that silent night long ago and about the MAGI’s wandering star—a message of love and hope, a simple wish for peace on earth and good will to all.
I’ll be right back…next year!
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com