When I was a little girl, the only lullaby I ever remember my dad singing to me was “We Three Kings.” He always said it was the only song he could remember. J So I’ve always had a soft spot for those three ragamuffin, nomadic mystics from an ancient land.
Despite every Christmas crèche, children’s Christmas story, and most Christmas scene depictions, the Wise Men didn’t appear at the stable simultaneously with the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.
We like to envision them as three grand gentlemen in extravagant robes, coming with the simple intent to pay homage to this newborn Savior-King.
But this isn’t quite the way it was.
The gospel of Matthew – the only place in Scripture in which we encounter those mysterious figures – calls them magi: wise men, astrologers, magicians “from the east,” meaning they were more than likely Zoroastrian priests. From the number of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – we in Western Christianity assume that there were three of them. (The tradition in Eastern Christianity is actually 12 magi.)
Scripture tells us they originally set out from their homeland seeking the newborn king of the Jews in order to honor him. Unfortunately, one of their stops along this journey was the palace of King Herod, king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. As far as we know, Herod wasn’t aware of the birth of this “new king” until the magi share this news with him:
They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him (Matt 2:2-3).
Uh oh. Herod was a ruthless man who thoroughly enjoyed his power and prestige. He was born a Jew and appointed as governor of Galilee by the Romans – a position that he defended through brutality and oppression. When his nephew forcibly deposed him, Herod went crawling back to the Roman officials and begged for a new position. They made him King of the Jews, of the nation of Judea – a title he defended with even greater brutality than he’d previously displayed.
And by asking the simple question of where this “newborn king of the Jews” might be, the magi focused the attention of this cruel and powerful king on the helpless, newborn Son of God. In a sneaky attempt to find this newborn threat, Herod tries to elicit the help of the magi, asking them to “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” (Matt 2:8). Essentially, Herod turns these mysterious sojourners into spies.
Fortunately, God is greater. As we know, the magi do indeed find the Christ-child. They follow the star. They enter the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. They fall to their knees and honor the new king, worshipping him and giving him their gifts. And then, before they can head back to the treacherous Herod and tell him all about this baby king, they are “warned in a dream not to return to Herod,” (Matt 2:12) so they head back to their home country by another road. Likewise, Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod is coming.
“Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. (Matt 2:12-15)
And so we find the Christ-child, the Savior, the One for whom the world has waited, the Prince of Peace, God Incarnate – we find the only Son of God Most High a refugee in a foreign land fleeing a terrorist king focused solely on destruction and death.
Imagine what the history of our faith may have looked like had the people of Egypt closed their doors to this refugee family.
 Mt 2:1-12.