Did you ever play the board game Checkers? The game is a little of like Chess, but a whole lot easier. It’s played by two people – one person has twelve black Checker pieces and the other has twelve red Checker pieces. It’s played on the same kind of board as Chess. The red pieces always go first. The object of the game is to “jump over and capture” the opponent’s Checker pieces. The ordinary pieces may only move forward diagonally, on the black squares. But, if your strategy pays off, and you reach the opponent’s first row (the row nearest to the opponent), you have the pleasure of exclaiming, “KING ME!” Your opponent now has to give back one of your captured pieces and “crown the king” (Put the piece on top of the piece that made it all the way to the other side). Your “King” is now able to go forwards and backwards diagonally, making it easier to execute double and triple jumps, and maybe even clear the board of the opponent’s pieces and WIN THE GAME! My dad and I used to play Checkers all the time when I was a kid. I also played the game with my Uncle Joe when he came to visit from Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It was a fun game, especially as I grew older and won more games than I lost.
“KING ME!” People have been fascinated with kings from the very beginning. Human beings have wanted to be their own kings ever since the beginning of time (See Genesis 3:1-5). Way back in Old Testament times, when Samuel was alive, the Israelites were envious of other countries ruled by kings. They were ruled by judges, appointed by God to save them from the “mess” they would get into by worshiping other gods. During the time of Samuel, their envy caused them to ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, instead of going to God for help:
“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel…They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel, so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their King” (I Samuel 8:4-7).
Instead of seeking the LORD and trusting Him with their problems, the elders of Israel looked for a “quick fix.” They did not look to God, but looked to other nations and the way kings governed them. The reason why God was displeased was that they did not only forsake Him, but also chose to serve other gods. God did allow Israel to have their own way and have their own kings to rule over them but, from reading the rest of I and II Samuel and the Old Testament Books, the Israelites having their own king turned out to be disastrous. In a way, it reminds me when I first started playing Checkers: I was so in a hurry to get a “KING” that I was letting my opponent wipe-out the rest of my Checker pieces. Only, the results of Israel’s impatience was a bazillion times worse!
With mankind’s endless fascination over kings and royalty, even to this day (just look at the tabloids’ front pages, with stories about England‘s royal family), it is not surprising that the Magi were mistaken for kings. The Magi came from the Far East and there was something mysterious about them. They were rich, judging by their gifts they brought Jesus. Because they were rich they are often depicted riding camels in paintings, as figurines, in manger scenes, and on Christmas cards. (This is the same reasoning we use when we have Mary riding a donkey: Because Mary and Joseph were considered to be poor peasants, they could only afford a donkey.)
We Three Kings
(By John H. Hopkins, Jr.)
We three Kings of Orient are: Bearing gifts we traverse afar –
Field and fountain, moor and mountain – Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.
Before we throw John H. Hopkins, Jr. and his hymn under the bus, there is a logical reason for him and early church fathers to believe that the Magi were kings. They believe the visit of the Magi was a fulfillment of these Old Testament prophesies:
“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17a).
“The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to Him; the kings will bow down to Him and all nations will serve Him” (Psalm 72:10-11).
“Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD” (Isaiah 60:6).
On the surface, these Old Testament Scripture can be seen as prophesies fulfilled by the Magi, in Matthew 2:1-12. The only problem is, (Dr. Richard P. Bucher points out) because Matthew is writing to mainly Hebrew people, he makes sure to identify each fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy mentioned in his Gospel (See Matthew 1:22-23; 2:14-15; 2:17-18; 3:3; 4:12-16; 12:15-21; 13:34-35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10), but he does not do not say that the visit of the Magi was a fulfillment of prophesy. This is why many Bible scholars do not believe the Magi were kings. This leads me to believe that the prophesies mentioned in the Book of Numbers and Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60, even though they sound like the Magi’s visit, are prophesies which will be fulfilled at Christ’s Second coming. (But, this is not something I would argue about.)
Who were the Magi who followed the star to find Jesus? This is what Dr. Richard P. Bucher writes in “The Magi/Wise Men FAQ” (www.orlutheran.com/html/magifaq.html):
“From the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek historian Herodotus, and the writings of Strabo, a clearer picture of the people called the magi appears. The magi first appear in history in about the 7th century B.C. in the Median empire (Herodotus I, ci). It is possible that we see examples of the magi in Daniel 2 and Jeremiah 39. At the birth of Jesus they were an ancient priestly caste dwelling within the Parthian empire the practiced astrology (note: at this time, ‘astrology’ was a hybrid of astronomy). They were adept at interpreting dreams (which we possibly get a flavor of as early as Daniel 2). Also at the time just prior to the birth of our Lord the Magi formed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (Strabo, XI, ix, 3). Thus, the Magi at this time were very possibly ‘king makers.’(Sources: D. W. Jayne, “Magi,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 4:31-34; Josephus, Antiquities of The Jews and The Jewish War; Herodotus, The History of Herodotus; A. Homestead, History of the Persian Empire).”
Why do we call them the “wise men”? Again we go to Dr. Bucher’s paper for the answer:
“”Because, as said above, magi were priests, serving an ancient priesthood, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, and government officials who had the authority to elect the Parthian king. In the context of the times, because they served these roles and had such amazing knowledge of mysteries as these, they were considered to be the scholars of the day.”
How many Magi were there? This is what Father William Saunders writes in “The Magi “ (www.catholiceducation.org):
“Traditionally, we think of three Magi…Actually, the earliest tradition is inconsistent as to the number of the Magi. The Eastern tradition favored twelve Magi. In the West, several of the early Church fathers – including Origen, St. Leo the Great and St. Maximus of Turin – accepted three Magi. Early Christian painting in Rome found at the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus depicts two Magi and at the cemetery of St. Domitilla, four. Since the seventh century in the Western Church, the Magi have been identified as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. A work called the Excerpta et Collectanea attributed to St Bede (d. 735) wrote, ‘The Magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an OLD man with white hair and a long BEARD who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Casper by name, YOUNG and BEARDLESS and ruddy complexioned…honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, BLACK-SKINNED and heavily BEARDED, name Balthasar…by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.”
I can see from the writing above where we get the traditional Three Wise Men for our Manger Scenes and Christmas cards. I can remember, as a little girl, watching my dad take a piece of chalk or wax and print the initials of the Magi’s names above our doors, on the “Feast of the Three Kings” Sunday, on or near January 6th. After reading what Fr. Saunders wrote in the above paragraph, I had an “EPIPHANY” (pun intended), in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I’m slow, but eventually the LIGHT bulb turns on. Even though this comes from early Church tradition and not from biblical accounts, the description given by St. Bede of the Magi has profound biblical Truth. Jesus, our God and Savior and King came to save us all – the OLD and the YOUNG, people who are DARK-SKINNED and LIGHT-SKINNED, BEARDED and BEARDLESS (Red Sox and Yankees). Jesus came to save us all; no matter who we are or where we come from, no matter how able-bodied or disabled we are, no matter how sinful we have been, no matter how small or great our faith is, no matter how rich or poor – Jesus Christ, our Immanuel, loves us all with His everlasting love! How incredibly AWESOME is that?! God’s love is too BIG for us to wrap our minds around. We just have to accepted His love and forgiveness by faith – Trusting that what God says is True and loving God in return.
How did the Magi know that they were following the star which would lead them to the Jewish Messiah? Let’s go back to Dr. Bucher’s paper:
“…But they were Gentiles. How did they know that the new star referred to a foreign-born king? First, we know from the Old Testament that when the Babylonians conquered Judah and Jerusalem, they deported a majority of the population to Babylon (see 2 Kings 24-25). The deported Jews lived as exiles in Babylon for 70 years, until the Medes and Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Persian king (esp. King Cyrus, see Ezra 1:1-4) allowed the Jews to return to Israel to rebuild the temple (see Ezra) and the city of Jerusalem (see Nehemiah) and many returned. However, not all returned. Many Jews continued to live in the Persian empire. Thus, by the time of Christ’s birth centuries later, the Hebrew religion would have long existed in the ‘east.’ Because of this, it is highly likely that the Hebrew Scriptures were also known, Scriptures that foretold the coming of the Messiah… Numbers 24:17 is one possibility. Also, Daniel, who was a famous man in Babylon and among the Medes, has several key Messianic prophesies in his book. This might explain how they had knowledge of the Messiah, the king of the Jews.”
What kind of star did the Magi follow? I agree with Dr. Bucher:
“[The star] was clearly supernatural. For, according to Matthew 2:9, the star moved ahead of [the Magi] until it was directly over the house where Jesus was and then stopped. No ordinary star does this. Rationalists have long tried to come up with a natural explanation for this star, that it was a comet or the conjunction of two planets, or some other phenomenon. But, first of all, there is no proof for their natural explanations. And second, this star did things that normal stars do not.” I think it literally pains people (ego-wise) to admit that they do not know everything or they cannot figure out everything that God does with human logic and having all the facts. All they need is all the facts. BUT GOD is bigger than everything our human minds can fathom. God can do anything. Believing God and trusting in His justice, mercy and grace is what faith is all about.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible…And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Hebrews 11:1-2, 6).
I admire the faith of the Magi. Even with all the “hats” they wore, they made seeking the Messiah, King of kings and Lord of lords, “very God of very God” (Nicene Creed) their first priority. Theologians estimate that it took between four months to two years for the Magi to find Jesus. They did not give up until they found Him. And their faith was rewarded. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.” That was what the Magi did.
When I was a child, I delighted in exclaiming, “KING ME!” to my dad and uncle. Now that I am an adult and have found Jesus, about thirty-some years ago, I delight in exclaiming, “JESUS IS MY KING!”
Lest you think “We Three Kings”, by John H. Hopkins, Jr. is a “bad” hymn and should not be sung ever again, this is not the case. Stanzas 2 through 5 are rich in biblical truth:
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain: Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I: Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising, Worship Him, God on High.
Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom –
Sor-rowing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glo-rious now behold Him arise: King and God and Sacrifice.
Al – le – lu – ia, Al -le – lu -ia! Earth to heav‘n replies.
Going back to Fr. Saunders, he closes his paper about the Magi with a quote from St. Gregory Anfinsen (d. 389): “Let us remain on in adoration; and to Him, who, in order to save us, humbled Himself to such a degree of poverty, as to receive our body, let us offer not only incense, gold and myrrh…, but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes” (Oratio, 19).
This is my prayer for 2014 (A servant puts the needs of others first.):
Make Me a Servant
(By the Maranatha Singers)
Make me a servant
Humble and meek
Lord, let me lift up those who are weak
And may the prayer of my heart always be
Make me a servant
Make me a servant
Make me a servant today
(In the interest of full disclosure, I am good at Checkers and terrible at Chess. My sister always beat me at Chess, even after I read a book about it! But, my real game is Scrabble. I am ruthless when I play Scrabble and have this maniacal laugh that always comes out when I take someone’s spot on the board – the same laugh that comes out of me when the Yankees are losing. But, I try to leave all my aggressiveness “on the game board.” I would not be any good at Poker. And I‘m certainly not good at keeping New Year Resolutions [making my blog posts shorter]!) But, I will keep on trying.
Welcome to all new “followers”! Thank you very much for reading my blog. Please feel free to pass it on.
I will be taking 2 or 3 weeks off, if the Lord lets me. I hope you all have been blessed as much as I have been in my studies of Advent and Epiphany. May the Lord shine His Light on us all during the dark New England winter and always!