The third stanza of The First Noel goes something like this:
And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from the country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
1) How many wise men were there?
2) What do the wise men have to do with the whole story of Matthew?
Advent season is upon us, I wish to write about Christmas and its many myths associated with the church. Because of its familiarity, Christmas has often turned into a mixture of myths rather than history about Jesus’ birth. The most familiar is often the most alien. If Christians proclaim that Christmas has a “gospel” in it, at the very least, Christians should get their own stories right. I start with Matthew in this installment.
The first myth is the “three wise men.” My more learned readers will say, “I already know that there aren’t three wise men, but three different gifts.” Please stay patient. The three wise men is a myth created in endless Christmas plays. Maybe there were three wisemen, or six or half a dozen. Who knows? As for the three gifts, Matthew seems to have named three different things but were they separated as three gifts or were there also other gifts? Who knows? The origin of the three wise men might have been adopted by the western tradition (the Roman Catholic Church) quite possibly from Gnostic sources. The real importance about the wise men is not the number but the direction from where they moved. While most of us know the fact about the mythical number of wise men, we neglect to understand its meaning.
If we read carefully, we will notice that the wise men came AFTER Jesus was born in Matt. 2.1. They did not take an airplane or a plane or even an automobile. Therefore, it took a while for them to find Jesus. By the time they found Jesus, the baby was no longer a newborn. In the first Christmas, contrary to our popular nativity scene, the wise men were not there at the manger. I believe we need to look at this event in terms of geography to understand its message. This geographical message happens to cohere with the larger message of Matthew’s Gospel.
Geographically speaking, the East was where Israel was exiled (this includes both the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles). The place represented a not-so-nice time of Israel’s history. When Matthew wrote about the magi from the East, he was portraying a God who used the Christmas event to draw people, not just from among Israel but also among gentiles. Traditionally, Matthew’s audience was Jewish, but this audience identification does not tell us more about the message of Matthew. If we look at Jesus’ final command in Matt. 28.18-20, Jesus told the followers to make disciples of “all nations.” The magi story foreshadows the discipleship of all nations, the universal scope of Jesus’ reach. While Matthew was preaching a Jewish gospel to the Jewish audience, his exhortation was for a universal mission.
Christmas is not just about some wise men coming to see baby Jesus. Christmas is about a God who attracts the impossible with impossible means. The church’s mission should learn from this. The universal message of Christmas shows God to reach beyond traditional boundaries so that all nations can hear the great news.
An Advent prayer (borrowed from our candle lighting this morning): Gracious Lord, as we begin our Advent journey, help us to know the abiding hope that comes from knowing you. Amen
PS. perhaps the picture above depicts Jesus scoring a touchdown despite persecution from three guys, but these were certainly not the three magi. They could be three thugs though. I’m joking.