‘We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…’
The image of the Wise Men or Kings is so iconic that it’s etched into most of our minds. Three elegant travellers, dressed in fine richly-coloured robes, perched on majestic camels, striding across the desert, with a large train of servants. There’s usually the star up above (more on that tomorrow), and a few romantically undulating desert hills in the background.
It’s a wonderful image, with more than a whiff of blarney about it. For a start, they weren’t kings. The word used to describe them is Magus (plural Magi): these were originally Persian priests or even sorcerers – it’s where we get the word ‘magician’ from. More broadly you could translate it as ‘scholar’. So, probably wealthy, certainly clever – but not kings.
There may well have been more than three of them too – we only assume there were three because they gave three gifts. But allowing for ‘group offerings’ there could have been any number… there might even have been just two, one of whom was particularly generous!
And they probably avoided the desert. Rather than go direct across the Arabian sands from Iran or Iraq to Israel (and almost certainly die in the attempt), they would have gone north-west round the so-called Fertile Crescent – adding a good 200 miles to their journey, but saving their lives in the process.
The image of a dozen magicians travelling through scrubland isn’t quite as magical (pardon the pun) as the alternative, I’ll give you that. But there is something much more important going on here. The extraordinary thing about the nativity story is that the key witnesses are (in the case of the shepherds) ceremonially unclean, and (in the case of the Magi) not even Jewish! It’s like a play which at first sight appears to have all the wrong people cast in it.
But that’s the point. When God comes to earth, he comes for everyone. Smelly shepherds, exotic magicians, teenage mothers, furniture makers – everybody. The great and the good, as well as the lost, the last and the least. Every nation, every age, every culture. The good news of Jesus is truly universal – the Messiah is a Saviour for all of us.
That’s why the Magi matter. As we travel with them for a few days, let’s be astonished once more by the extraordinary length, breadth and depth of the love of God. A love which reaches to you too – right here, today.