In his interesting book, The Magi, author Eric Vanden Eykel invites his readers to imagine the nativity scene. Who is included in our mental images? Mary and Joseph, shepherds, and Jesus, of course, but how do they refer to him? The translation people are most familiar with is "the newborn King of the Jews," but Vanden Eykel suggests that a more
precise translation would read, "the one born King of the Judeans."
Since the Magi refer to Jesus with this title in front of King Herod, the difference in translation matters a great deal: The second translation more directly calls into question the legitimacy of Herod's Rome-backed control over Judea. We know that Herod was paranoid and power-hungry, but this might help us further understand the jealousy and rage that led to Matthew's story of the "massacre of the innocents." Whether the Star of Bethlehem that led the Magi on their journey was a star, a planetary conjunction or a comet, it too posed a challenge to Herod’s kingship, as astronomical phenomena were commonly believed to mark the arrival —or departure — of great rulers.
Like the Gospel of Christmas, the Epiphany passage is an old and much-loved story, yet it is full of mystery and missing a lot of detail as is Luke’s Christmas narrative. The story of the Magi following a star across the desert on their camels and clutching their gifts for baby Jesus has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Yet there are parts of these stories we take for granted and pieces that we’ve incorporated that are not in the Gospels.
We all grew up calling the Magi the "Three Kings," but a literal translation would be something like "magical people." The word has been translated as "wise men," and "astrologers," but we often just say "kings" instead. When the word "magi" occurs elsewhere in Scripture, it is not often in a positive light. The word connotes a foreign quality that can explain the multiethnic appearance of the trio.
The Christmas stories are an excellent example of how much influence writings outside of the Bible and legends passed on orally can have on our impressions of Biblical events. As the legend about the Magi entered the world of Medieval Christianity, several pieces of artwork depicting the event show influence of similar non-biblical sources that add some interesting viewpoint. An early sixteenth-century artist represents one of the Magi as a Native American. What a great metaphor for the diversity of those eccentric visitors to the Christ as well as a witness to God’s radical inclusion.
Eykel says that, "aside from Jesus, Mary, and a handful of others, there are few characters in the history of Christianity who have exercised a more profound influence on our collective imaginations." He provides the reader the opportunity to clear away what we think we already know about the Magi, and to allow us to gaze on the scene with fresh eyes. For instance: How many magi were there? Nearly everyone would answer, "Three, of course!" Often the three are even named: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar but it was the poet Longfellow who names them.
You may have heard about The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke, a fourth magi named Artaban accompanied them but was delayed, helping unfortunate travelers he met along the way to Bethlehem. By the time Artaban finally got to Judea, 33 years had passed, and his arrival now coincided with Jesus' crucifixion. Legend says the old pilgrim was rewarded for his labors of charity with a vision of Christ before his own death.
Which brings us to this important consideration: at the heart of all of the Christmas stories is the dream. A dream quells Joseph’s concern about young Mary’s pregnancy; dreams warn important characters how to go forward in safety and security. God’s faithfulness is revealed to Joseph and to the Magi, as their trust in God’s faithfulness is revealed to us. What if we paid attention to our dreams?
There is a wonderful Hasidic story that reveals the “faith treasure” that lies within each of us—if only we would recognize it. Isaac, a poor Jew, lived in an old hovel far from the big city. One night he dreamed that if he made the journey there, he would find a bag of gold under the bridge leading to the city’s main gate. He was so poor he had nothing to lose—so he started out on what one might consider a foolhardy trip.
After several days of walking, he arrived, sore and exhausted. But to his dismay, he found that the bridge was heavily guarded. Terribly disheartened, Isaac stood under the bridge, hoping for a chance to look for the treasure and his presence soon got the attention of the captain of the guard who yelled, “What are you doing here, old man?”
A simple, trusting man, Isaac told the captain his story about the dream. Hardly able to contain his laughter, “the officer replied, “You old fool, where would we be if we took notice of our dreams? Last night, I dreamed that if I went on a journey to a small village miles from here, I would find a great treasure hidden behind the fireplace in the miserable hovel of an old man named Isaac. Be off with you. Take your foolishness elsewhere!” And, of course, Isaac went home as fast as he could and found the treasure he had dreamed about behind his own hearth.
An epiphany is the sudden intuitive perception of something, the realization of the reality, a flash of insight, a moment of vision—all the surprising, amazing stuff of God. The magi’s journey led them to a revelation, to find the treasure who was at the end of a quest they had been on all their lives.
What about us? Episcopal priest Elizabeth Keaton writes that “when we allow ourselves to trust…and follow where it leads, we may find ourselves smack in the presence of God.
Sometimes the treasures about which we dream are right in our own backyard—in familiar places like our home, the people we love, our church, our individual ministry in the world. We just need to look a little harder and be radically open to where the Spirit of God is directing our attention. Where would we be if we paid attention to our dreams? Maybe, like old Isaac, we’d be surprised where they lead us and what we discover at the end of our search.