One of my favorite Christmas stories is not based on the Bible; it is a legendary tale concerning the wisemen who came to visit the newborn king.
Our traditions and folklore tell us a lot more about the wisemen than the Bible actually says. For instance, the Bible never says there were three wise men and it certainly doesn’t tell us their names. Tradition has led us to believe there were three and only three, probably because three different gifts are presented—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I guess there could have been only two (thus the plural “men”), but there could have been an entire caravan of visitors. Sometimes they are referred to as the three kings or the Magi. They may have been astronomers and historians who studied the stars and other cosmic phenomena and knew some of the ancient prophecies of the sacred texts. They were most likely Gentiles (non-Jews) who understood the significance of a Jewish Messiah. Their worship of the Christ Child tells us that all people are welcomed by Jesus.
Most traditional nativity scenes show three wise men bowing at the manger with the shepherds, surrounded by angels and animals. But the Bible says the wise men entered “the house,” because by the time they arrived, Joseph had found more suitable lodging for his family. Many believe that the wise men arrived 12 days after Jesus’ birth and they designate January 6 as Epiphany to commemorate the event. The meaning of epiphany is “the moment in which one suddenly sees or understands something in a new or very clear way.” It’s like your eyes are opened, the lights come on, and you have an “aha” moment.
We’re not sure exactly when the wise men arrived or how long they stayed, but we know they went back to their homeland by a different route, avoiding Jerusalem and the treacherous King Herod. It must have taken Herod several months to realize that the wise men ignored his request to inform him of the child’s location, but his response was the genocide of all baby boys under the age of two throughout the region of Bethlehem. He wanted to ensure that he had eliminated the threat of a “newborn king.” Meanwhile, Joseph had been warned in a dream to take his wife and child to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. After their time as refugees, they returned to their hometown of Nazareth.
In the first sentence I mentioned a favorite story. It is entitled “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Amahl and his widowed mother are very poor and are scraping to get by. Amahl was a shepherd but the sheep had been sold and his only goat died. He was inquisitive, hopeful, and very active; but he was also crippled and used a crutch to get around. Just after bedtime one night, the three wisemen and their page (a sort of valet or bodyguard) knock at Amahl’s door and ask his mother if they can rest for a few hours. Yes, in this tale there are three wisemen and they have the names Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar.
Amahl’s mother learns that her visitors are seeking a child to honor with their expensive gifts, a child who will grow to become a king. As they settle down to sleep in her austere little house, she cannot resist the temptation to steal a few gold coins from the wisemen’s treasure chest. When she is caught in the act, chaos ensues with Amahl getting very distressed that the page is mistreating his mother. When things settle down, the wisemen tell her she can keep the gold because the child they are seeking doesn’t really need their gold anyway. They announce that his kingdom will be built on love and peace and righteousness. When Amahl and his mother hear this, they want to give the wisemen their own gift to take to the child. Having nothing else of value, Amahl offers his crutch as his gift to the child. When he does, he is dramatically healed and able to walk without the crutch or anyone’s assistance. The story ends with Amahl accompanying the wisemen so that he can take his crutch to Jesus himself and thank Him for his healing.
Now that’s a great story and to see it performed on stage as an operetta is an incredible experience. But I wonder: Have you had your own personal Epiphany? Have you met the Christ of Christmas? What gift did you give to Him this Christmas? Have you offered Him the only gift He really wants—the gift of yourself? As a new year begins, what difference does it make in your life that “God so loved the world (and you!) that He gave His only Son”? I guarantee that 2018 will be significantly better with Jesus in your life!
I know it has become a cliché, but I love the clever saying, “Wise men still seek Jesus.”
Michael Hancock is the Associate Pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Xenia and guest columnist.