Pilgrim’s Road Trip, Christmas version: The Journey of the Wise Men

We live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

I am journeying through Scripture, stopping at a few oases along the way, in order to contemplate our exile experience in an occasional series on this blog. I’ll also offer some helpful thoughts about how Christ can reshape that identity and reorient our journey so we live as pilgrims. To read earlier posts in the series, click here.

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My husband and I took our kids to see the Star of Bethlehem December sky show at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium a couple of times during their elementary school years. There was something magical about sitting in the darkened auditorium watching the ceiling glow with twinkle light constellations as a narrator coolly described the possible confluence of planets – maybe it was a comet – all while spinning several other theories about the timing and nature of the sign-star the wise men from the east tracked all the way to Bethlehem.

The theories were interesting enough, but what has stuck with me all these years is hearing at the show that the journey of the magi may have taken this group of wise men months, or even as long as a couple of years. These pagan men, who were likely of noble birth in their own culture(s) and certainly possessed keen scientific minds, were willing to sacrifice of their time, safety and comfy lives in order to follow a star. They knew this supernatural star was like nothing they’d ever seen or studied; there were no cool scientific minds explaining it away, perhaps trying to convince them to stay home in the process. They knew this star was giving them good news hot off the press, and this good news had implications not only for the Jewish people, but for all the nations. This brief piece says it well: “They were the first Gentiles to see the light.”

Their journey to honor the birth of this Jewish baby king is a pilgrim’s story. They didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t have a map, save the star. They had no idea how long they’d need to travel, or what hazards they’d encounter on the way. They didn’t circumcise themselves in order to join themselves to the Jewish community; they weren’t acting as converts but as seekers. Their wealth meant they were traveling with an entourage, but entourages cost money to feed and clothe. They spent themselves in pursuit of an unknown; their sacrifice to follow the star itself a portrait of their worship. 

We often focus on the gifts these men brought the baby at this time of year, citing the gold, frankincense and myrrh they gave to Jesus as the reason for our annual December buying frenzy. But it is worth contemplating the journey the magi took in order to bring those gifts as we reflect on our own pilgrim lives this season. Their presence itself was worship. They followed a star westward, expecting royalty to be on the other side. They visited the titular king, Herod, in fact, in search of the king announced by the star. When his barely-concealed rage at their inquiry netted them bupkis, they continued onward, away from Jerusalem until the star pointed them toward a common baby in a common person’s dwelling. Nothing about their journey may have made rational sense to these men of science, including the destination. 

But they followed. Their desire to worship was greater than their desire to be safe, to be comfortable, to know all of the answers. They modeled the compass driving every pilgrim’s journey.

To consider in prayer: In what ways are you traveling into the unknown to seek God? 

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  • Tim

    Beautiful insights, Michelle. Can you imagine the tales they told when they returned to their homes, families, neighbors?

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Imagining those tales – they’d make a wonderful Christmas skit or reading at church!

      • Tim

        I’ve just finished writing it. It’ll be up the day after Christmas on my blog.

        • Carol Noren Johnson

          Love the dialogue you wrote, Tim. Yes, Michelle, it would make an excellent reading or skit.

    • Jim

      Those aren’t insights. That’s imagination. Read the above entry.

      • Tim

        I read your entry, Jim, thanks. Doesn’t change anything.

  • Jim

    The bible doesn’t tell us how many magi there were, although “magi” is plural. If they came from three nearby kingdoms (maybe they all came from one or two of the kingdoms), they would have come from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria and Persia (Iran). All of these countries are east of Israel. If the followed a star in the east, they would have moved away from Israel when the star rose. Later in the night, they would have moved south toward the Arabian Peninsula. Only when the star was descending would that have moved toward Israel. On subsequent nights, they would have done the same thing. They never would have arrived in Bethlehem. If they arrived at all after two years, where was Jesus? Certainly not in Bethlehem. Was he in Nazareth, as John states? Or was he in Egypt? Only Matthew tells this story. It doesn’t make sense. He either invented it or transcribed it from local legend.

  • Jim

    Don’t let facts get in the way of what you want to believe, Tim.

  • Jeannie

    Thank you for this, Michelle: I just saw it linked at Tim’s place. I love this part: “Their desire to worship was greater than their desire to be safe, to be comfortable, to know all of the answers.”

  • Erica M.

    This was beautiful to read. We never really do think about how much of a journey these men had to find the ultimate truth.