The Magi and the Christmas story
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Isaiah 49:7
The birthday of Jesus is celebrated by most churches on Dec. 25 (some Eastern Orthodox celebrate on Jan. 6). Along with that celebration, we find the traditional nativity scenes that depict Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in a manger.
The shepherds are there. There are some sheep and other farm animals. Angels hover over the creche, and often a star is attached atop the barn-like structure. In the background, we see three Wise Men and their camels.
Thus, we have the complete Christmas story placed together.
Except, the Wise Men (Magi) were not at the birth of Jesus.
Matthew 2:1-12 tells us they came to worship Jesus when he was a toddler and living in a house. As we continue on with Matthew 2, we find that, due to Herod’s jealousy of a king being born to the Jews, he decreed the killing of all boys up to the age of 2 and living in the Bethlehem area. This helps us to realize that Jesus was no longer a baby in a manger when the Magi came to worship him.
Traditionally, churches celebrate the coming of the Magi on Epiphany Sunday, two Sundays after Christmas. Although the Day of Epiphany falls 12 days after Christmas, which is Jan. 6, this season Epiphany Sunday will be celebrated Jan. 3, 2021.
What is the significance of 12 days? It began as legend, turned into tradition, but still is a myth, that it took 12 days for the Magi to find Jesus after his birth. Scripture tells us that was not the case, as explained above.
So, why do we put the Magi in our nativity scenes?
First, let’s take a look at where the idea of nativity scenes began.
It was St. Francis of Assisi who is recognized as the one who first presented a live nativity in 1223. His purpose was to bring the Christmas story out in the open so that people would be encouraged to worship Baby Jesus at Christmas.
His nativity scene did not include the Wise Men, but it did include the shepherds.
Live nativities became popular and led to more and more of them appearing through the years. Eventually, the live actors were replaced by smaller scenes that could be set up within the church and eventually into our own homes.
The oldest scene is believed to be the one made of marble figures and exists at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy. It dates from 1284 to 1289. The supposed sculptor was Arnolfo di Cambio.
Eventually, the Magi became part of the nativity scenes and re-enactments. Unknown when this practice started, the Magi bringing their gifts to the Baby Jesus became part of children’s Christmas pageants and were added to the creche scenes.
This tradition and myth of the early appearance of the Wise Men became part of the overall Christmas story because of what it taught us about Jesus the Christ. Born king of the Jews, who became Savior to the nations, the Magi became part of the now and future Christ.
Scripture found in Matthew 2 tells us the Magi came from the east where they saw his star in the sky. The Magi are believed to be astronomers and astrologers from possibly Arabia, or perhaps Turkey, who read signs in the sky based on the stars. At that time, astronomy and astrology fell under the same science.
Notice, when the Magi met Herod, they did not say they followed the star to Jerusalem, only that they saw the star of the King of the Jews in the eastern sky. They did not know where the Christ child lived. Herod had to call his chief priests and teachers of the law who knew that the prophecy about the child included his birth to be in Bethlehem.
After the Magi left Herod, the scripture continues by telling us “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them and stopped over the place the child was.”
This scripture is where we get the movement and stopping of the miraculous Christmas Star. This is why we include the star in our Christmas stories today.
By the way, a little more information about the Magi: They were not kings but were certainly wealthy. We do not know if there were three men or a whole caravan; scripture does not tell us. It may have been a caravan of people who came because it was the usual way people traveled long distances that took many months.
Also, if they were wealthy, they did not ride on the backs of camels but would have ridden Arabian horses. The camels would be used to transport their belongings.
The names we call the Magi come from names that were used for kings of eastern countries that were added to the Christmas story some time between the fifth and eighth centuries. We do not know their names, their number, nor exactly where they came from. All has been added to the traditional Christmas story and nativity scenes.
Nevertheless, we find in second-century paintings of the Adoration of Christ, the manger scene of Christ’s birth, complete with shepherds, angels, the star and the Wise Men. Through the centuries, the Christmas story was enhanced by putting all of the scripture together in one scene.
The coming of the Magi represented the coming of the gentiles who would worship Jesus in the future. The gifts fit for a king included burial spices that would be used for anointing the king at his death, representing the sacrifice made by Jesus for all peoples. The gifts also began the idea for the giving of gifts to one another at the birthday of Jesus.
We find the truth in the Bible. The tradition of adding the Magi, who followed the star to the birth place of the Baby Jesus lying in a manger, allows us to further understand the miraculous signs and wonders surrounding the King of Kings, our Savior God come to earth.