“We three kings of Orient are.” So begins a favorite carol of the Advent season about the “Wise Men” who visit the newborn Jesus. And so begins a tale that takes inaccuracy and historical revisionism to a whole new level. Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote the carol a century and a half ago, should have known better.
First, we don’t know exactly how many kings there were. There could have been as few as two and up to almost any number. Tradition says that there were three (though some traditions mention twelve), and over time they were even given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But these are apocryphal stories.
Second, they were not “kings” from the Orient. They were Wise Men, or put more accurately, Magi. The Magi were astronomers – primitive by today’s standards – who were on the cutting edge of scientific and philosophical knowledge in their day. So it may be best to view these Magi as the uncanny combination of scientists, philosophers, and theologians – but not kings. And such men called Persia home (modern day Iran), not the Far East.
Third, these men did not find the Christ child while “following yonder star.” They saw the star “in the East” or “at the rising of the sun,” but then proceeded west to Palestine. The star did not reappear until they were already in Bethlehem.
And finally, the Magi, technically, do not belong in the Nativity scene at all. They were latecomers to the Christmas party, maybe as late as Jesus’ second birthday. The quaking shepherds, singing angels, and lowing cattle had returned to life as normal long ago. On and on I could go ripping the veracity of this Christmas Carol apart, but that is not my intent.
“We Three Kings” remains one of my favorite Holiday hymns to bellow out this time of year. My critique of it is to simply point out that apart from the accumulations of questionable tradition, we know little about these mysterious men from the East. And these traditions prevent us from embracing what we can learn from them – for the journey of the Magi is a fascinating exercise in unexpected faith.
They came seeking the child who had been born king of the Jews, based almost entirely on the appearance of an enigmatic star. While history is rampant with explanations for this phenomena, one conclusion is certain: The Magi interpreted this unusual sign in the heavens as a clear communication that something extraordinary had taken place in the world. And even more extraordinary, these Persian sages applied their interpretation to the emergence of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
Why so astonishing? Not many people would launch out on a dangerous journey through the Middle East based solely on a spiritual hunch. Not many people would put their life on hold to prove their mystical intuitions to be true. And the most shocking of all, not many Persians (today’s Iranians) would worship at the feet (or manger) of a Jew. And not many Jews could abide by such a thing, either!
Yet, in God’s way, these all belonged together. Divisions of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity did not factor into the equation. This is a foreshadowing of what the Apostle Paul would say later. “In Christ,” he said, “there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female. You are all the same in Christ Jesus” (See Galatians 3). And “all” does mean “all.” All are welcome into the presence of the One who will “reconcile everything – all things in heaven and on earth to himself.”
So here is where the Magi teach us the wisest of their lessons: There are many barriers to overcome and great distances to cover in our journey of faith – “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to quote Reverend Hopkins – but when we get to where we are going, we will we welcomed in with open arms. There we will find the “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.” And “all” surely means “all.”