A Christmas Story: A timely gift of gold.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

About the time of the annunciation by Gabriel one night, a more subtle message was sent through the stars, a message those shepherds probably missed. But an intellectual society of astronomer/astrologers further to the East noticed an occlusion of Jupiter, which means the moon passed in front of that bright planet. For someone who intensely studied such rare occurrences, and who also was an expert in the symbolism of what these events meant, the event held great significance.

Jupiter symbolized “a king.” The moon has traditionally represented the queen of heaven. So when observing Jupiter passing behind the moon then appearing again, it represented a pre-destined king, growing in the womb, and then born into the world. No doubt, they had seen something like it before.

A king had been born.

And these astro-guys knew it. According to an old Armenian tradition, the astro-guys were named Gaspar (from India), Melchoir (Persia), and Balthazar (Arabia), members of a sect that followed Zoradascht, the founder of Zoroastrianism (some scholars disagree) They were the scientists of their day, and just like modern scientists, they witnessed the same evidence, met up at a convention, and agreed upon an interpretation the evidence. And whether oby their own agreement, or the rulers they served, they decided to take action.

The occlusion was seen in the Eastern sky, so they determined that the birth was in the kingdom of Israel, at that time a Roman province.

Although more modern traditions have indicated that they were kings, the bible does not mention this and even John Calvin dismissed this reading as a heresy perpetrated by a certain church which he opposed.

My own mentor from my college days, Dr. Campbell, inspired me to dig a bit deeper with his own view as the “wise men” as political / religious diplomats. Proceeding from that perspective gives the story a likely twist that many had probably not considered.

These “kings” were well-educated, saavy, clever -- more than a match for the sociopathic, scheming political leaders of the lands where they held high offices as advisers. Also know as “Magi” due their knowledge and abilities (origin of our modern word “magic”) they reasoned (and I may be reading into the story a bit here) that an immediate visit (with gifts of course) to honor the heir apparent was advisable, with the hope of signing a diplomatic agreement that would benefit their respective nations in the future. Best to do this prior to others figuring out who was born. They were wise indeed.

It took a couple of years to connect with one another, come to the same conclusions, organize the trip, but the Magi were soon on their way.

Image: James Tissot: The Magi Journeying (c. 1890), Brooklyn Museum, New York City (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi#/media/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Ma…)

While traversing the miles of winding roads, they no doubt debated their plan. They would visit the king of that region, assuming that the new king was his son, and then begin their delicate negotiations for a treaty or some sort. Heading straight for Jerusalem, with their entourage of guards, servants, and translators, they intended to see Herod the Great, an interesting fellow in his own right.

Herod was an Edomite (a descendent of Esau, Jacob’s fraternal twin brother, but not a Jew). Appointed by the Roman Senate as “King of the Jews,” Herod still had to gain his kingdom by force, wresting it from the hands of Antigonus, who had led the Jews in a rebellion against Rome. Historians are unsure if Herod ever really converted to Judiasm, probable because of his degenerate lifestyle and an aversion to circumcision (yeah, I’d have one of those aversion if I were not already …) Herod was educated, a good enough general to defeat Antigonus, an ambitious builder of temples, ports and forts, and shrewdly married the defeated ruler’s niece to win favor and secure his throne. He later had her executed, as well as three of his own sons. With command of a secret police and 2000 armed bodyguards, this despotic rule kept everyone in line and on their toes. Herod was not a nice man!

I can only imagine that Herod was perplexed when three Eastern Magi arrived at his palace to offer gifts and pay homage to his new-born son, destined to be king. But no doubt, he kept his misgivings to himself as he “warmly” welcomed his visitors. After an evening of fine dining, wine, stories, entertainment and then a night’s rest, Herod and his visitors met the next morning to talk business. But by this time, Gaspar, Melchoir, and Baltazar had noticed that something in Herod’s bearing had appeared disingenuous. Their guard was up.

In their somewhat public meeting, the Magi asked “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” After Herod called for the prophesy experts of the Jews, it was revealed that the king was to be born in Bethlehem. Ooops.

Herod was troubled, understatement of the year in 4 BCE. Everyone witnessing the meeting, who had been walking on eggshells around Herod, could also see the subtle signs that he was taken off guard and troubled, even though he kept smiling. Word got around fast, and soon everyone in Jerusalem was troubled. A new king had been born. They knew what Herod did to people who challenged his throne.

Herod call the magi back for a 2nd meeting, in private this time. Good thing that his attendants were listening in, and probably converted to Christianity later, or we would not have some of these details today. Herod queried the magi and learned the time that the “sign” appeared. Then he secured a promise from the Magi to return and tell him where this new king was located. The Magi promised to do so.

But they were wise to the ways of sociopaths like Herod. They could see the deceit in his demeanor, and fully understood that his intentions were NOT to go worship the new king.

The set off to find him, and I am sure they had an interesting discussion along the way.

“Herod was lying.” said Gaspar, as soon as they were out of earshot. Knowing nods met his declaration. “So, what shall we do?” asked Balthazar, to which Melchior replied, “We do what we came to do, for starters.” After a bit of discussion, they concluded that Herod was dangerous, deceitful, and fully intended to take action when they returned. The debated possible courses of action, finally deciding to sleep on it and make a decision after finding the new king.

Their astronomical abilities, and research ingenuity, and a conjunction of a couple of planets in the sky (recently calculated by scholars), and directions to Bethlehem, only a six miles from Jerusalem, enabled them to find the right place. Upon arrival, they asked around, and were finally told by some shepherds what had happened back when the sign appeared. We don’t know if Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem, or lived somewhere else, but the Magi found them, presented their lavish gifts, worshipped, and said goodbye. I have no doubt that their gifts were not a paltry gift that would insult the wealthy ruler with whom they expected to do business. They gave Joseph & Mary a lot of gold, not just a small box with a few coins.

Image: 3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy

Spending the night before returning to Jerusalem, they were warned in a dream NOT to go back to Herod. The scientists were touched by the spiritual realm. But unlike today’s scientist, they could hear the message.

“Hey guys,” mumbled Balthazar over his morning cappuccino, made from fresh non-GMO Arabica beans, “I had a dream from God!” These fellows weren’t the sort to take dreams lightly, brushing them off as too much matzah, feta and olives from the night before. Gaspar and Melchior were all ears. “We gotta get outta here, and fast,” said Gaspar. They broke camp and hit the road, taking the southern road around the Dead Sea and back toward the East. Good thing that camels can go faster than soldiers.

Along the road, they had some time for reflection. Melchior voiced what they had all been thinking:

“You know fellows, the events of the past two days are significant.” They nodded in agreement. “Here we are on the run from “Crooked Herod,” who we know is going to try to kill that baby. We are told by God in a dream to run. I sure hope that God was able to talk to Joseph and warn him also.”

“I have no fears on that account” said Gaspar.

“Yes,” replied Balthazar, “and now they have enough gold to escape. I hope they head for Egypt where he can find a job. Skills like carpentry are always in need.” They nodded in agreement. “Gold is a handy thing to have in one’s possession, just in case a sociopath is after you,” continued Balthazar. “Those little bronze coins issued by Herod might as well be made of parchment.”

“But what is the big picture here?” continued Melchior. “I liked that family, and I really liked that kid. There’s something special about him. Think of it: His birth was announced in the sky by the sons of God, but when we arrived, the new king wasn’t what or who we expected. The hand of God is at work. God is up to something new. This is no ordinary king. I perceive that this little kid will not grow up to be just another rebel, trying to overthrow Rome and give his people a few years of self-rule before another Empire rolls into town and the crucifixions begin. No, something bigger is at work.”

And so they pondered, predicted, and prophesied all the way home. And they told the key parts of their side of the story, so that important details would not be forgotten.

The spiritual annunciations experienced by Joseph & Mary were affirmed as legitimate by the wisest men in the earth when they received the lavish gifts. And the astrological, political, and scientific experience of the magi affirmed their own sources of knowledge as they heard the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth.

And they were right. God was up to something new. These Magi played a key part by enabling a family to escape a sociopath. Their son grew up to be a prophet, and as many believe, the Son of God who brought a spiritual kingdom to the world. From day one, this was a kingdom that stood in opposition to the ways of the world. A kingdom of truth, honesty and divine power, instead of a kingdom run by grasping, power-hungry, greedy psychopaths who would order the death of all the male boys under two years old within a geographic region. This included Herod’s own two year old son, probably born to his 2nd or 3rd wife.

The worst that humanity offers came into conflict with the best it can offer. Three unsuspecting men who simply came to show respect and cut a deal of some sort, listened to the prompting of God and had a small, but critical, part to enable this new kind of king to escape a certain death. The history of the world was changed forever by a timely gift.

One might say that God orchestrated all the events, but God normally relies on humans to carry out his purposes.

History is filled with such stories. And the thread of “unlikely coincidence” that weave its way through oral traditions, stories, and ancient writings provides the evidence that this author needs to maintain a spiritual belief in the face of all the secular humanism to be found in our university system. It strengthens me to teach against the latest popular philosophy or activist dogma that has the look of truth, but smells like a rotting corpse when you get too close.

Seemingly small, timely actions of people who are tuned into the bigger picture can give us all hope as we are challenged by the evil and duplicitous power brokers of our own age.

Maintain hope, take courage, keep stacking, and let this Christmas season renew your own generosity towards those you love.

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