The Visitation of the Magi

It being Epiphany today (the 12th and last day of Christmas, and the day we celebrate the coming of the Magi), I thought I would post my version of the Magi story. This is from my re-telling of the whole Nativity story that goes back to the actual Biblical texts and tries to make sense of them without all of the additions and assumptions that so clutter most versions.

The account in the Gospels does not specify when the Magi came, and my assumption is that is some 18 months after Jesus was born. Why 18 months? Because Herod, when he hears the Magi’s story, has all the male children under 3 killed. Now, Herod was a mean, violent, paranoid man (the Romans said that it was better to be Herod’s enemy than a member of his family–your chances of survival were higher!), and I would expect him to add a safety margin to the expected age of this “new king”, but it seems unreasonable to make it 3 years if Jesus was only a day or so old. Doubling the expected age seems more reasonable.

Note that the account doesn’t specify three Magi either, just three gifts.

 

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Adoration of the Magi, Exeter Cathedral

Adoration of the Magi, Exeter Cathedral

The sudden appearance of the party of Magi threw the whole of the palace into turmoil. Visits from foreign dignitaries were complex enough when they were preceded by months of preparation, for people to just drop in unannounced was intolerable! Well, they would just have to understand if some of the protocols were a bit off-if the deference shown them was not exactly the appropriate amount; if they were sometimes kept waiting a little too long. It was by such small niceties that the complex game of relative honour was played and without the time to decide before the visit exactly who outranked whom and by how much, the courtesies themselves became a kind of give-and-take match designed to solve the issue.

The four Magi-Zoroastrian priests from Persia-took it all calmly. It had been nine months since their astrological calculations had first shown the birth of a major actor upon earth’s stage. First there were the checks, then the further study to discover where this prince had been born. And then more checks and double checks when the answer seemed to be the insignificant little territory of Judaea. Arrangements were made and finally they had set off on the journey west that had led them here to Jerusalem and the palace of the local ruler, hardly a king, who styled himself Herod the Great.

The palace staff was grateful for one thing, at least Herod was actually in Jerusalem at the moment and not in one of his fortresses or country retreats or even on a tour to inspect some of the many building projects he had going on throughout the land. So it was that the magi finally found themselves in a small private reception hall face-to-face with Herod himself.

“I’m told you come looking for a newly born prince,” said Herod after the formal pleasantries were done. “I’m afraid you have wasted your time. All of my children have grown and none of them has had a child recently either.”

“Your pardon, majesty, but the signs are quite certain. Indeed we checked them very carefully before setting off on such a long journey. A man of great destiny has been born here.”

“And yet, as I tell you, no prince has been born to me or mine.”

The magi looked at each other as the import of this remark sank home. Finally one of them ventured, “Perhaps not of your family?”

“What! Never! No, my friends, I’m afraid you have made some mistake. Unless, of course, you think of the so-called ‘Anointed One’ has finally come!”

The ears of the magi perked up at the term, even though it was obvious Herod found it ridiculous. Their former eagerness returning, they pressed for more details.

“It is the belief of some of the religious people here that God has promised to send a descendant of the great King David who will restore Israel to its former Glory. He is called the Anointed One-the Messiah or Christ. Every so often someone shows up claiming to be him and getting everyone up, but their rebellions are usually quickly put down. Such prophecies are more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Ah, but if the prophecy is true! It would most certainly explain the signs we have seen. What else can you tell us about these prophecies? Do they say where he will be born, for instance?”

“Well, you can hardly expect me to be up on all of these superstitions. But I will consult with those who should know. Return tomorrow and I will tell you all we know.”

As soon as the magi were gone, Herod let out the anger that had been building up in him. Despite his pretensions to greatness he knew that his position was really quite precarious. The Romans tolerated his role because his ruthless policies kept the province relatively peaceful. And the Judeans tolerated him-barely-because, while not Judean himself, he was closer than the hated Romans. But if trouble should break out, if the people should rally to a powerful leader! Even if he put down such an uprising the Romans would almost certainly remove him. And of the uprising should succeed, then not only his own life but those of his whole family would be forfeit. No! He could not tolerate any rival, least of all one claiming the authority of prophecy.

Herod’s anger easily communicated itself to his palace staff, who fled into the city to bring the chief priests and scribes, Pharisee or Sadducee, to the palace. They came quickly, for Herod’s rages were well known, but by the time they were all there most of Jerusalem was in a wary and upset condition. Surely this did not bode well.

Once they were gathered Herod swept in and, dispensing with all courtesy, fired at them, “This Messiah of yours-what do the prophecies say?”

After a brief consultation, one of the chief priests answered, “There are many prophecies, but they all agree that the Messiah will be a descendant of David who will free Israel from the oppressor’s yoke and re-establish the Davidic dynasty.”

“I know that! Every child in the city knows that, you fools! Details! When will he come? Where would he be born?”

The priests and scribes consulted together again, longer and more heatedly. Finally one of the scribes came forward. “As to when, nothing is said. But the place is known: Bethlehem of Judaea. For so it is written in one of the prophets “But you, Bethlehem, in the land in Judaea, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

“Bethlehem? What, that dirty little village near my fortress of Herodium?”

“That would be it, your majesty.”

“This whole thing just keeps getting more and more ridiculous! Very well, if that is all, we are done.”

And Herod swept out of the hall.

Late the following afternoon the magi found themselves in the same small reception hall. The Herod who entered and greeted them seemed to be nothing like the one who had interrogated the religious leaders the day before. Now he was all smiles and courtesy. But it was all a front-one which he had spent a long time preparing. He was absolutely determined that no peasant pretender from the middle of nowhere was going to unseat him and his family, but he also knew that his best course of action was to use these magi to get more information. In a way he was pleased they had come, for in their innocence they had revealed a possible threat. Now he would use them together enough information to destroy it.

“I have good news for you, gentlemen! Good news for all of us I dare say. My experts tell me that the prophecies are quite clear, if not on the when, then at least on the where of the messiah’s birth. It is the city in which David himself was born-though city is a misnomer for it is little more than a small village. It is called Bethlehem and, what is more, it’s only some five miles south of the city.”

“Five miles? Yes, yes, our calculations could have been off by so little. We were looking for the birthplace of a king, so naturally we assume the capital but,…”

“We thank you, King Herod, for your assistance in this matter. If we can do anything to repay your kindness, ask.”

“Well there is one thing. Obviously the coming of the messiah is great news for us all. When you find him, please come back and inform us so that we can go and pay him homage to.”

“But of course. It is late today, we will set out in the morning and see what we can find out. We will be back in two, three days at most I would expect.”

“Good, and may God prosper your search.”

That night the four magi all found their sleep disturbed by bad dreams. They discuss them as they broke their fast before setting out for Bethlehem.

“It is significant, I think, my brothers that we’ve all had such ill-omened dreams!”

“Yes indeed. I fear we were too hasty in giving our word to Herod yesterday. I do not think this messiah is good news for him at all, and surely he intends to destroy such a threat to his own rule.”

“But we did give our word. I, too, fear it is a bad thing that we should deliver news of this king to Herod, only our word cannot be lightly set aside.”

“No ,nor should it. But consider, brothers, just what was asked and what we promised. We agree to tell Herod what we find so that he could go and pay homage to the child. However, as our dreams make clear to us, he has no intention of paying homage. Therefore, I suggest, we are no longer bound.”

“In that case we had better not return here to Jerusalem. But where else can we go? There is nothing much to the south, and if we go east we will hit the Dead Sea which will force us north again towards Jerusalem.”

“Then we go west. To the coast. Then north, up the coast to Tyre before turning east and home by way of Damascus.”

“A long way! But then again, there will be many opportunities to pursue our studies. And should Herod try to find us he’d hardly expect us to go west.”

“Then we are agreed?”

“Agreed.”

 

It was rare for a small village like Bethlehem to receive such distinguished looking visitors; and it was only slightly less rare for the magi to visit such a place. Hence both groups eyed each other warily. For the villagers, wealthy, powerful visitors usually meant trouble, although there was always the chance that they were harmless and a few coins might be made off of them. For the magi these were just poor peasants and would barely have received any attention at all except for their quest.

As the magi and their servants, a small party of a dozen or so, made their way into the village, the magi look for a likely source of information. They ignored the young children running around them and finally found what they were looking for in a small group of old men sitting in the shade.

“Fathers, we seek information on a child. Is there in this village a child born nine months ago, a male”

The men looked at each other, but whether out of hostility, puzzlement, or some other motive was hard to tell. The magus who had spoken quietly took out a purse and opened it.

“We mean him no harm, I assure you. We’re here to celebrate his birth. Is there no such child here?”

Whether it was the sight of the money or the reassurance, the men seemed suddenly friendlier. They discuss quickly in their own language and then one of them answered in poor Greek “sounds like the carpenter’s son is the one you want, he’d be about the age.”

“Is still here? Where can we find him?”

“Carpenters house is down that street there, ‘bout halfway, on your right.”

The magus thanked them and gave them each a coin. Then they set off on the final leg of their quest. A small crowd of children with some women and older men followed them until they neared the house. Stopping a little before the house, the magi left their servants in charge of the animals and went the final short distance on foot.

The house they approached was clearly little more than a clay box, a one-roomed dwelling like most in this village. The door stood open in the morning sun and the inside looked black to eyes accustomed to the harsh glare outside. They stopped at the door, about to announce their presence, when a girl, or very young woman, appeared from inside. She kept her gaze respectfully lowered as she began to apologise.

“I’m sorry, masters, but my husband is not here. He is away working. But he will be back this evening if you wish to return.”

“It is not your husband we wish to see, but your son. You do have a son, about nine months old, do you not?”

“Yes, sir.” That now almost-familiar feeling came over Mary again: more strangers appearing from nowhere to see her son. “Please, come in out of the sun.”

She stood back and allowed them to enter. The crowd of onlookers gathered around the door to watch, so Mary felt sufficiently chaperoned. The magi entered and found the house to be as they had expected, one room sparsely furnished. And there, crawling about the raised rear part of the room, was the object of their search, the child.

Mary went quickly and picked Jesus up, bringing him down to the magi. As she approached she watched in awe, but without much surprise, as these great men bowed deeply. As they rose, one of them spoke to her.

“Do you know what, who, your son is?”

“Oh yes,” Mary answered softly, remembering Gabriel’s visit. “He will be God’s Anointed One.”

“Yes, your ‘Christ’. In the east we had not heard of him and yet as we studied the stars we saw the sign of his birth. We knew a great one had been born and the signs brought us here.”

“We brought gifts,” another added. “Gold.” He held out a purse.

“Myrrh,” said the next, proffering an alabaster jar.

“And incense,” the last added.

Mary pointed to a shelf formed by a recess in the wall, and the magi deposited the gifts there then came back to look at the child.

But he was just a child and Persian magi had little to do with children, so the situation quickly got a little awkward. Finding there was little left for them to say or do, they took their leave. Following the earlier decision they left Bethlehem and headed west, not north, and so began the long journey home.

The next morning a very troubled Joseph spoke earnestly with Mary.

“We have to leave here, now.”

“But why, Joseph? We’re doing well here.”

“I had bad dreams all night. Mary, Jesus is becoming too well-known here. These magi who came had been in Jerusalem. If Herod hears then who knows what he will do.”

“But surely God can protect him.”

“Yes, of course. But God put him in our care are now my best judgment says to go, now. I think God is warning us.”

“Where can we go? Back to Nazareth?”

“No. We must get beyond Herod’s reach as soon as possible. In my dreams I saw us going south, to Egypt.”

“Then we go to Egypt. I will start packing the house, if you’ll pack your tools and prepare the donkey.”

Two days later, when Herod realised that the magi were not coming back, the little family was already long gone. And the next day when the soldiers arrived to vent Herod’s anger (and, not incidentally, to allay his fears) they found only four young boys in the area. While that was no comfort to the bereaved parents, it was so small an item in the tally of Herod’s atrocities it went unnoticed in the larger world. None of the villagers had any love of Herod, and none even thought to inform the soldiers about the child who got away. It was, they thought, one small blow to “them”, the powerful and rich.

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