Sunday, January 7, 2018

The mystery of the Magi

Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany. Most, doubtless, know this is when we celebrate the visit of wise men from the East to the Christ-child bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No Christmas crib would be complete without its representation of these three kings; and every school nativity play includes them, the children wearing tin-foil crowns carrying cardboard treasure-chests bringing smiles to the faces of the proud parents and grandparents.

Concerning the Epiphany, there was a survey done in America recently. It asked people if they thought various incidents in the Gospels were true. One of the questions was about the visit of the Magi. And quite a lot of people thought it never happened.

In a way, I'm not surprised. The idea of three kings from various far away countries making a long, dangerous, and expensive journey following a star as they bumped along on their camels does sound a little implausible. But then again, that's the Christmas card version of the story. The account in the Bible is actually quite different.

All it says is that wise men came from the East. They went to the court of King Herod in Jerusalem and said they had seen in the East the star of the one who had been born king of the Jews and they had come to pay him homage. And as it happens in ancient Israel the word East generally meant a specific place – Arabia. It is a bit like when we in Ireland say we're going to the North. We don't mean North in general; we mean a very specific part of Ireland we refer to as the North.

Now, Arabia is quite close to Israel. And in Arabia at that time was the small kingdom of the Nabateans. Archaeology shows that they had a class of wise men who were interested in stargazing. And, as it happens, King Herod was the son of a Nabatean princess and had spent a lot of time in the court of that kingdom. And Arabia, we should note was famous for its goldmines and the production of aromatic spices such as frankincense and myrrh – exactly the gifts the magi brought for the Christ-child.

Looked at this way the visit of the Magi is one of a kind of diplomatic visit between two nearby kingdoms – a very natural occurrence. There is much more I could say about why there is good reason to believe the visit of the Magi really happened, but space does not permit. If you'd like to learn more, there's an excellent recent book on the subject called 'Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men' by Dwight Longenecker.

But, of course, arguing about whether it is true can obscure the reason why we celebrate the Epiphany. And this is that it tells us that the Christ-child came into the world for all people everywhere. And that is a wondrous truth which is truly cause for celebration.

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