Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wise Men Seeking Wisely

Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. Those are the names of the mysterious Magi who came to worship the Christ-child. Or are they?

Well, those are the names we’ve given them. But nobody knows what their names really were. In fact, nobody really knows that there were three of them. We suppose that there were three of them because three gifts were given. But, in fact, the Bible doesn’t say how many kings there were – there could have been two or there could have been a whole caravan.

In fact, the Bible doesn’t say a lot of what we take for true about Christmas. It doesn’t say that Mary road a donkey to Bethlehem – yet almost every picture you see of her and Joseph making their way their shows her atop that particular creature. The Bible doesn’t say a hard-hearted innkeeper turned them away, scoffing “There is no room in the inn,” yet we talk abut this heart-hearted man and wonder how he could do such a thing. The Bible doesn’t say what kind of animals crowded around the baby Jesus – or even if there were any animals. Yet, no creche would be complete without a few cows and sheep. The Bible doesn’t record a heavenly choir singing to the shepherds – but that doesn’t stop us from singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and believing it.

Yes, we have dressed up the Bible story – added some things, fleshed it out a little more to our liking, perhaps. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, so long as we know the real story and the real characters.

What the Bible says about Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar (or whatever their names were) is this – that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”

So, who are these Magi, why are they looking at the stars and why do they come to worship?

History tells us that most probably these men were counselors to mid-Eastern kings. Schools of astrology had been established as early as 500 years before the birth of Jesus and by the time these wise men followed the Natal star, this caste of astrologers had spread as far east as India.
These scholars were students of the stars during a time when to be such was to be on the cutting edge of knowledge. Their study of the stars was far different than NASA’s. They weren’t looking for the origins of the universe or speculating upon life other than human. In fact, they believed that there was life beside ours – angels and devils and spirits. They didn’t worry about space aliens.

The reason they studied the stars was as an attempt to go beyond ordinary and obvious understandings of life and achieve deeper, more meaningful discernment of the world and how to live in it. These were highly educated men of high moral principles. They were scientific moralists. And, as the Bible story shows, through Herod’s receiving them at court, they were men worthy of respect.

So these wise men are in their studies in a distant land, watching the sky for signs. And what do they behold? They see the planets and stars telling a story so absolutely incredible, that they felt compelled to take a long journey at great expense to see the One to Whom the whole heavens appeared to be pointing.

And so come the wise men, seeking wisdom and seeking it wisely, in search for the newborn king. They come with gifts -- gold as a sign of royalty, frankincense representing spirituality, and myrrh, an aromatic resin, representing healing power -- and also used, prophetically, perhaps, for embalming purposes.

That’s a nice story, but what’s it got to do with us? A number of things, hopefully. For one, most of us in our country today are more like the Magi than the shepherds, though we find it easier to identify with the shepherds for some reason. We, like the wisemen, are well educated, learned people. We may scoff at that image, but we are. The difference is, besides the obvious cultural ones, that the wise men we hear about this Christmas season employed their knowledge in pointing them to the eternal. They did not separate mind and heart and soul the way we moderns do. Their learning prepared them for the encounter with the child Jesus. They journeyed far, compelled by their discovery, to greet this one who had been born. We would do well to use what we know intellectually in the pursuit of a life rich in the things of the spirit.
For another, they gave gifts. We give gifts in honor of them. We spend small fortunes looking for just the right present for each person we love. They wisemen remind us that we would do well to give such gifts to this newborn King. And the greatest gift we can give does not involve money. For most of us, money is an easy gift to give. Instead we are asked to give of something precious – and in this day and age the most precious thing we seem to have is time. We all complain about our busy-ness and how their are too few hours in a day. If we give the gift of time we give necessarily give our hearts and lives.

Finally, there is one other lesson the Magi have for us. And that is, the coming of the Christ is not a fairy tale, one to be told once or twice a year. It is the story of real, flesh and blood folks just like ourselves, who participated in the eternal, as we are called to do.

That is the challenge these wise men who came seeking wisely offer us some 2000 years later. The wise men each used their learning, followed their hearts and offered them, whether they contained words or wealth, to the new born king. May we, in this Christmas season, seek as wisely as did they. For in seeking this Babe of Bethlehem, we like them, will find the one who is the great lover of our souls. Oh come, let us adore him.


Anonymous said...

i am the one who put a comment on your post about Mary. not tooo long ago i went to a book store, on the shelf i saw a familiar name and was very startled to find too the face that i see on your blog. i did not know you had written 2 (more?maybe) books. especially since i only began reading your postings in the last few months.

i am quite curious now to read them, is it better to buy from the book store or some web site? (do you have some personal web site from which a purchase is better?)

it makes the fragility of my (near lack of) faith that this journey undertaken by the Magi is awesome in my eyes. i guess the details of how long did the star remain to guide them are not so important. but it must have taken them some months after the birth to reach the infant Christ. this is no trivial journey to make on the basis of only a star! naturally dangerous in those times. in my mind if i think about it, it is a rival vs the story of Abraham and Isaac for trusting in God's intentions.

indeed, how long it must have taken the Magi to go to the Infant, and how long their thoughts must have been directed at this target, it is another reason to say literally that the birth story is not a one day event.

speaking on that subject can you please tell me, why the Quakers say, "the time some men call Christmas"?

thank you for your writings

Brent Bill said...

Well, actually, I've written about 18 books over the years. My three most recent (Holy Silence, Mind the Light, and Imagination & Spirit) are still in print. Most of the others are in the annals of history! I do have a website ( through which you can buy books (autographed copies are $15 which includes shipping -- let me know via email,, but bookstore sales are nice, too. Do whichever is convenient for you. I'm just glad you're interested in them.

The phrase "the time some men call Christmas" comes to us out of the Quaker past when Friends, being non-liturgical, did not celebrate any holidays or holy days. Every day was/is sacred and holy. So Quaker used to refer to any holiday with that phrase "the time some men call... Easter ... Pentecost... Christmas." Some Friends still use it, though it is not commonly heard.

I do think the "magic" of this season is the mystery of why and how God uses "poor ornery people like you and like I" ("I Wonder as I Wander"). I think it's less something to be understood than it is a miracle to be embraced.

Thanks for writing -- Brent