Offstage Christmas - The Magi

As we enter this advent season, our focus is usually fixed on Jesus and his arrival. And while we have great hope in this, we can often fail to recognize the journeys other characters in the nativity story were going through as they encountered Jesus for the first time. So for this advent season, in the weeks leading up to our celebration of Jesus' birth, we will be taking a closer look at some of the offstage or less central characters to the advent story.

Who were the Magi? We see them in Nativity scenes and sing “We Three Kings”, but they were not kings. Some reference Isaiah 60:3 but there’s no mention in Scripture. Matthew calls them Magi. They were some combination of philosophers, astrologers, astronomers and wise sages (though some were charlatans). They were all priests of the prophet Zoraster in modern day Iran.

How many Magi? It’s not true that there were 3 wise men (though Eastern Orthodox believe there were 12). Some traditions even give them names. As astrologers and sages (their titles precede our English words “magic” and “magician”), they were interested in the birth of kings, and were knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures and its prophecies of the Messiah (since Parthia had control over Judea before King Herod took power).

A little background on the reason for their journey: Most scholars believe the star of Bethlehem they were guided by was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. (Most scholars believe Jesus was born around 6 B.C. - there was a miscalculation of the calendar). The magi would have traveled about 1,000 miles (approximately 1.5 to 2 months journey by camel) to reach Bethlehem (from Parthia). The Partian Empire was ruled by Phraates IV, who was a cruel dictator (killed his father to become king, then killed all his brothers, and traded off his sons to ensure the throne). The Magi were living in darkness and seeking the light.

What can we learn from the Magi? Jesus represented hope and life to the Magi - a king who would rule with justice and righteousness (unlike Phraates IV). This is why we celebrate Christmas - our longing for hope, life and light in the darkness of our world today. Christmas can’t be just about getting the newest iPhone, TV, or latest fashion. We live in a world filled with darkness, and like the Magi, we seek hope, life, and light (through the cross and resurrection of the Messiah).

Christmas can be a time of great darkness for some - death, depression, suicide. What do they / we need in the darkness? It’s not the newest iPhone, TV or latest fashion trend. It’s hope, peace, love and joy - the themes of Advent.

We are the Star of Bethlehem: Like the star, we are to point people to the source of hope, peace, love and joy in Jesus Christ. We are to be the “light of the world.” At Grace, we seek to bring hope to those in darkness.  We partner with organizations like Hesed Community Church, bringing light and hope to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit.  We support Hope Clinic, an organization caring for those who desperately need help. And we encourage you to look around for people without hope - consider the hope you have to give and share and invite someone in need to a Sunday service or Christmas Eve service coming up.

Consider the gift we have to give. The Magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - this is where our tradition of giving gifts for Christmas comes from. But notice, the Magi didn’t ask, “What do you want for Christmas?” It wasn’t their birthday; it was the birth of the Messiah, the King of the Jews. While it’s not wrong to buy each other gifts for Christmas, perhaps we’ve made Christmas too much about us, and not about Jesus.

While little is known about the history of Saint Nicholas, we might follow his example as he followed the example of his Lord Jesus Christ. He secretly gave to people who were in need, people living in darkness, people without hope, peace, love and joy. So a challenge for this holiday season: give away as much as you spend on yourself, friends, family members for Christmas and give it to our Christmas Eve offering where it will help our strategic partners bring relief to places like Brightmor neighborhood in Detroit, patients who walk through the doors at Hope Clinic, Destiny Rescue working on the other side of the world, rescuing children from sexual exploitation and slavery. Let us continue seeking out hope, peace, joy and love this advent season, and sharing it with those who are living in darkness.