The Christmas Nativity stories are just that – colourful, dramatic, entertaining, fascinating tales, which never lose their appeal from one generation to the next.
In the story in Matthew’s gospel, “Magi” make their appearance. Strictly speaking, Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion in what was once Persia, but is now Iran. The gospel writer, however, has them coming, more generally, “from the east”, and pictures them as astronomers, astrologers and dream interpreters.
Where did the idea come from that they were ‘kings’? Most likely it came from the Hebrew scriptures. Psalm 72:11 says, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service,” and Isaiah 60:3 says, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising”.
Where did the idea that there were three of them come from, since Matthew gives no number? This dates from the 3rd century, when the ‘church father’ Origen derived it from the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Names were likewise later given to them – Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. There is, however, an ancient manuscript story from Syria that bumps their number up to twelve! Gold and frankincense, by the way, were most likely suggested by Isaiah 60:6, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”.
And what about that amazing ‘star’, which came down far enough down from the sky to become a mobile travel guide, able to pick out a particular house and hover helpfully over it? Matthew’s imagination may well have been stimulated by Numbers 24:17, “A star shall come forth from Jacob, a sceptre shall rise from Israel.’
It’s quite a story, so what can we say about these visiting stangers that might have some relevance for ourselves? The Magi are open minded people. They are interested in, and respectful of, other religions, and go out of their way to explore them. That’s a refreshing contrast to what is too often the case – people being closed minded about their own religion, and hostile to others even though knowing very little about them, and being disinclined to get involved and find out. Prejudice, intolerance and bigotry were splendidly lacking in Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, and provide a model we’d be well advised to learn from.
The same applies to their refusal to have anything to do with Herod’s planned ‘slaughter of the innocents’. He was King of the Jews, and architect of the resplendently refurbished Temple of their God, and no threat to his political and religious preeminence could be tolerated. The Magi, however, want nothing to do with, and will in no way assist in or support, bloodthirsty plans, terrorist acts and indiscriminate slaughter. Their religion is about acceptance of differences, and respect for other views, and repudiation of hostility, hatred, violence and murder.
Once again, we have a lesson that some of us today badly need to learn.
[Image – Crosswalk.com ]