“We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse far
Field and fountain
Moor and mountain
Following yonder star…” (1857) Composer: John Henry Hopkins Jr.
Yeah, the cover photo above is backstage when I played a wise man in a Broadway style Christmas musical in Buffalo, NY in 2003. That’s me in the red and yellow. Lucy was the camel. She was terrific. Somehow, I often found myself positioned right behind her…behind. She didn’t care about blocking scenes, apparently. Her owner/handler told us although Lucy was mild-mannered, camels have been known to lock their jaws over a human’s head and bite them right off the necks. In this shot, I had no idea she had her face turned toward me. I do wonder what she was thinking. However, she seems to be smiling. My hope is she just liked my peppermint colored hat. Nevertheless, I’m telling you right now, riding a camel while singing at the same time is not a great combination. Zero comfort. And, poor baby, she stunk! There’s no way I would, or could, ride Lucy over field and fountain, moor and mountain.
Speaking of mountains…take a look at this.
Photo: Chicago Tribune
One of my fondest memories with my single mom were rare times when we shared a summer vacation. When we did, it meant a road trip. One of the joys was to learn the history under our feet. When we saw signs about approaching historical markers, we would faithfully stop and read the history of that particular place. It was a great way to close your eyes while imagining placing yourself back in time on the landmark where we stood.
When I was 13 years old, or so, we headed west for an adventure through far west Texas, New Mexico, and Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. While driving closer to one of the first mountain ranges, along the Texas/New Mexico border, we stopped at a roadside historical marker. It directed the reader to look up at one of the mountains off in the distance. It went on to mention a well-traveled pioneer wagon route which went through the area and over the mountains. It was complete with dates, names, and pioneer stories. With the info, it pointed out a place carved out of the incline of a mountain where the covered wagon wheel ruts were still visible. Lo and behold, there they were some five miles away going up and over the top of a particular mountain, not too unlike the photo above.
I loved the old wild west history, and still do. Yet, seeing where the brave, tough families made their way from east to west in nothing but covered wooden wagons, was vastly different than reading about them.
There are multitudes of old wagon and stagecoach trails, where pioneers made a way across the terrain, which remain visible to this very day. There are some more visible than others. We can literally track their treks.
I feel the same exuberance when I read about the wise men from the east who made their way to Bethlehem, Israel in efforts to visit a single small house of a poor young family.
They have a mysterious story. Most feel they were from Persia, modern-day Iran. (The study on why is remarkable and in depth. Too much of it to write here.) Also, at this time of year we sing about three of them. There are three names given for each traveler which are from tradition, not historically accurate. Because three very expensive gifts are listed among their inventory, the centuries have placed “three” wise men in the biblical story. Yep, you guessed it. The stretchers and benders of history assigned one gift to one wise man. However, the Bible doesn’t number the wise men, or those in the caravan. There could have been two, or two hundred. The account doesn’t tell us. No matter how many wise men, or Magi, as they are also called, we do know they are described in many ancient middle-eastern and Asian documents, some of which are literally carved in stone.
Magi (wise men) were of a nobility, or an aristocratic clan. They were widely known for being highly educated with collections of vast libraries. Magi were scholars, well-versed in multiples of subjects like, astronomy, astrology, science, mathematics, literature, religions, even medicine, and magical arts. You could point to Camelot’s Merlin as one like the ancient Magi. In fact, it was a bit of a luxurious priesthood, a fraternity of royal order, living their lives alongside kings and queens in palaces. One thing is certain, history places them with royals and heads of state, serving the crown for the duration of a lifetime.
The Old Testament prophesied of these kingly types, along with their gifts of high value, hundreds of years prior to the birth of Jesus. The star they had studied from Persia was also prophesied in the Hebrew text. In fact, they arrived at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem to ask where this newborn King of Israel was because they saw His prophetic star from their country in the east. Apparently, they told Herod about how old the baby would be by that time. (Close to toddler range.) Herod commanded his scribes to find the prophetic passage of the location where the new king would be born. They looked up the text. They read from, what was then, a 700+ year old scroll found within the minor prophets. It was Micah 5:1 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrath, who are little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of you shall come forth to Me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days.”
Nativity sets, as well as artsy Christmas cards, have the wise men in the cave-like stable bowing before the manger. Actually, they weren’t there. Again, they studied the new heavenly body in the sky, the old Hebrew prophetic texts, and apparently put forth a travel plan after the birth occurred. Scripture tends to lean in such a timeline. When they arrived to worship the baby boy and present their gifts, the scripture says they didn’t approach a stable, but rather arrived at “the house”. In the original text it indicates they saw a “boy”, not a newborn. So, the famous painting of the visitation has it about half right.
“The Adoration of The Magi”, By: Bartolome Esteban Murillo
For as long as I can recall, I was always fascinated by the journey of the wise men. Most all scholars have their origin as Iran, and for good reason. Some have them residing in modern-day Iraq. Both Persia and Babylon have long historical records concerning Magi. There are many scholars placing them south in the regions of modern-day Qatar or Oman because of an ancient trade route there which trailed northwest. It is interesting that there are Old Testament prophecies stating origins like, Arabia, Sheba, Median, Tarshish, etc. In the book of Song of Solomon there is a description of nobility approaching in a long caravan resembling a smokestack. This is why many artist renditions show various ethnic groups represented in the wise men. In fact, because of the fraternal order of the Magi, I can imagine many from other nations might have joined the caravan. I could go on about this incredible event, but it is not the point of my post.
I wish there were wagon wheel ruts we could study and map-out detailing their yellow brick road journey. For such a long journey on camel, and/or horseback, or donkey, lots of prep had to be made. I guess in a way, we can at least trace their actions. If so, we could identify with them even more. Come on, consider the evidence with me.
Think of it. This team of Magi, first had the ancient Hebrew scrolls full of directives on how to find the baby Messiah. More than likely left by the Jews when in captivity in the region hundreds of years prior. In other words, they had in their possession, and researched, the known Hebrew Bible of that day, among others.
Their testimony was clear. They told all of Jerusalem they studied the scrolls for direction, for awareness, for identification and verification. When they saw the mysterious, newly illuminated “lower atmosphere” body, which moved ahead of them, leading them to where they should go, they loaded up. It was no small thing. Prep consisted of saddling their camels, assembling their attending slaves, possibly communicating their find to neighboring wise men among surrounding kingdoms, and mapped the course. Before you think it odd, there’s something to keep in mind. From the ancient Torah, specifically the book of Numbers, Balaam, the only gentile prophet in scripture, wrote a two-fold prophetic delivery, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A STAR SHALL RISE out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel…” Numbers 24:17a (Douay-Rheims Version)
These doctors of astronomy knew the difference between a celestial conversion, a comet, a meteor, and all other natural universal laws of astronomy. They understood what they discovered was unnatural, planted for their eyes only. Keep in mind, it moved as they traveled, like a laser or a drone, vanishing when they arrived in Jerusalem, reappearing only after they left King Herod. At that point, the illumination directed them south to Bethlehem where it rested over a designated house. Of course, you realize this was a floating body of light hovering in the lower-atmosphere with actions of intelligence. So many lose the details of this mystery by not matching up the physical attributes of the object. Otherwise we are left with a comet, meteor, or a star from millions of miles away hovering over a house among hundreds. It doesn’t pass the smell test to reasonable readers. Personally, I believe it was an illuminated angelic being. But, that’s just my take on it.
They read, they researched, they believed, they saw, they followed.
Do you want to identify with them even more so? Dare we? Should we?
Wise men Facts:
They left their comfort zone to make their way to be by His side…on faith! For those who believe Christianity is a cakewalk, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. No, it’s not always rosy complete with a comfort bubble in today’s world. Jesus told us it wouldn’t be a walk in the park to follow Him.
How dangerous was it? They proclaimed a new King of Israel to the face of the murderous, and insane King Herod, a puppet king for Caesar in Rome. That fact right there can give us some wagon ruts to view. He could’ve tied them to wagon wheels for a good flogging. But, he wanted them to report back to him after they located the boy so he could destroy Him. Killing babies was nothing for Herod. He was famous for killing his own family members that he wanted out of the way. (He did make an attempt to murder the boy-Messiah , but it didn’t work out that way.) All that to say, the faith of the foreigners was incredibly stout. They didn’t have to see to believe. They were already in expectation based on the Old Testament prophet’s writings of the timing Jesus when He would be born found in the book of Daniel, the eternal kingship, the place, the moving star, etc.
So there they were, in a house of a couple with a young toddling boy…THE Boy, THE Spiritual Redeemer of The World, THE Ancient Of Days in an earthsuit.
It’s important to note they just didn’t high-five the Boy, dump their Santa gifts, eat ham & gingerbread cookies, and head back to their countries. Instead, they bowed their knees in their royal robes, face-to-floor worshiping Him, even with what they prepared…the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In other words, it cost them something. They unloaded what they attributed as value.
In hindsight, the Magi found Jesus very similarly as many do today. They read, they researched, they believed, they saw, they followed.
Frankly, I think I see more clearly their wagon wheel ruts, and I’m right behind them. Somehow I always seem to be looking at a camel’s behind.
Whenever the wheels of the spirit turn, it’s powered by pistons of fuel for the race.
“…What can I give Him, Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb, If I were a Wise Man I would do my part,— Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.”
From: In The Bleak Midwinter (1872) – Christina Rossetti