In Matthew chapter 2 we can read the only account of a visit to the Christ child by magi--Wise Men from the East who were drawn across mountains and valleys by the appearance of a strange star.
I've always been fascinated by this aspect of the Christmas story--for the record, there were 3 recorded gifts, but no mention of how many wise men visited Jesus. They didn't appear at the stable with the shepherds, they showed up later on and found Jesus and Mary living in a house in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a shabby outpost town, mostly populated by shepherds and soldiers. We don't know where the wise men came from, other than "from the East"--scholars have speculated everywhere from Persia to China and lands in between.
I got to play a Wise Man once in a Christmas play. It was one of those shadow productions where you posed behind a giant sheet with a floodlight illuminating the scene against Christmas songs sung by a choir. In this case, the song was We Three Kings of Orient Are and I knelt on a wooden platform spanning the baptismal tank, dressed in my father's bathrobe (bought expressly for use in Christmas programs) with a crown on my head and a gift box held aloft in my hands. On either side were my sidekick kings, Ben Huggins (who I secretly crushed on) and some other boy I don't recall.
Grown up now, I consider those kings--magi. Magi were learned men, wise men. Scholars from a foreign land who studied the night skies for signs and prophecies. Whatever drew them to Bethlehem was something unusual and fabulous to spur them on such a journey. They traveled 500 miles (or more) on camel, across rugged terrain and through regions full of political upheaval. They recognized the importance of that sign in the sky and followed it to the source. They agreed that the star (a comet? convergence of planets?) was an opportunity they shouldn't miss and took the journey at great personal risk and expense to see firsthand what the star meant. They didn't have anyone's confirmation--"Hey, Abdul, did you happen by Jerusalem in the past year to see this baby king? What was it like? Was it worth the trip?" No, these men were pioneer scholars, going into the unknown. They knew there was a chance they'd make the trip for nothing.
They didn't take their journey without some preparation. They read ancient texts and put together the history. They studied writings in other languages than their native tongue, pieced together prophecies fulfilled and still promised, they researched and took notes. They concluded, before their journey began, that the star in the sky pointed to the birthplace of the king of the Jews.
In Matthew 2:2 they arrive at Herod's palace in Jerusalem--near enough to where Jesus lay blowing spit bubbles and examining his fluttering hands above his face in Bethlehem. The wise men assumed (not incorrectly) that the birth of a mighty king must take place in the political and religious center of Jewish life--Jerusalem. They assumed the current leader knew something about it.
I figure the magi must have had some significance for King Herod to grant them an audience. Wealth? Reputation? Political alliance? Whatever the draw, they got to the throne room and explained their presence: "Where is the child...born to be king of the Jews? When we were in the East we saw the star. Now we have come to worship him."
They knew. Look at those words. These guys were convinced because of the star, their research, the way it all added up. This baby was important. They came from far away to worship a future king. A baby swaddled in diapers was worth their honor and reverence--and gifts.
King Herod double-checked the magis' story with his own chief priests and scholars. Yep, a Jewish king was supposed to be born sometime in Bethlehem in Judea. He secretly cut a deal with the magi. "Find the child and report back."
The magi continued another 6 miles to Bethlehem. It says in Matthew that the star went ahead of them, finally stopped above the place where the child was. "When they saw the star, they were filled with joy." I wonder if anyone else noticed the star in the sky. They must have. What did they think it meant? Was it scary? Beautiful?
Here is the moment, the culmination of their efforts. They stop their camels outside of a little house in a dusty po-dunk town. Inside this humble abode lies a great future king. The heavenly light above confirms this. They gather their gifts from leather saddle bags--or did they travel with an entourage of servants? I imagine they did. Out come treasures: gold, incense and myrrh--precious things.
At no point did the magi retrace their steps. They didn't look at the tiny house, shrug and say, "Well this was a wild goose chase. Let's get a bottle of wine before heading back home." They stepped inside through faith and saw Jesus and Mary. They bowed and worshipped and presented their gifts.
It amazes me how moved they were, these foreigners of a different faith. They never questioned Jesus's worth or value. They simply took the journey to see the fulfillment of a promise and fell to their knees in God's presence.
And, to their credit, they went immediately home, never returning to King Herod, the reigning king, who no doubt promised Good Things if they complied with his request. They didn't succumb to the temptation of a bath and feast and comfortable bed undoubtedly promised at the palace in Jerusalem. Without hesitation or debate they returned home.
I admire the magi for the leap of faith their journey took. I wonder if I'd recognize a sign from God the way they did. I heard once that we don't realize miracles these days because we aren't looking for them. The magi believed in the power of a baby in a crappy neighborhood over the power of a ruler in a palace. They believed in the unseen and unknown, took a trip through some of the (still!) most treacherous regions on the planet, and what they found filled them with joy. The Wise Men. Seeking truth. Seeking knowledge. Finding Christmas.