The Birth of Baby Jesus—as Told by the Wise Men

The Birth of Baby Jesus—as Told by the Wise Men December 21, 2023

Baby Jesus and the Wise Men
Painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones via Unsplash, courtesy The Birmingham Museums Trust

Who were the Wise Men (Magi) who traveled so far to honor the birth of Jesus? What provoked them to make such a long journey? And how did they find the stable? The Magi have achieved almost a mythical standing in Christianity (for decades, they were on the front of every Christmas card my Dad sent out), but the Bible paints only a faint picture of them.

There are two stories in the Bible that speak to the birth of Jesus, one appears in Matthew and the other in Luke. But only Matthew includes the Magi in his story and there’s not a lot of detail there. In a nutshell, Matthew’s tale goes like this:

 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem and asked: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East, and we have come to worship him.” And when they entered the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they bowed down and worshiped him. The, opening their treasures, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then they departed to their own country.

That’s it! You might also note that the passage above never mentions the number of Magi. Most Christian denominations have traditionally assumed there were three wise men, based on the fact they brought three gifts. But it’s not certain there were three. It’s also interesting to note that the word Magi can be translated into “astrologers”—no surprise that men who had been following a star for thousands of miles might be perceived as astrologers.

Is there more to the story of the Wise Men? Yes.

In The First Christmas: A Story of New Beginnings, author Stephen Mitchell tells the story of the birth of Jesus from a number of unique perspectives. These include the innkeeper, Mary’s husband Joseph, and even the donkey in the stable who witnessed the birth. But in his retelling, the most interesting characters may be the wise men, which in Mitchell’s recounting number two.

Who are the wise men? Mitchell speculates they are devout Jews, religious scholars who traveled far from their homes to study in India. You might look at Mitchell’s retelling as historical fiction, a look at what the full story could have been. Personally, I found the tale oddly satisfying, as it paints a richer picture of who the Magi were and what their journey was about. What follows is an edited excerpt from The First Christmas that I’ve put into bullet points.

  • When the star appeared in the sky, the wise men knew that it was time to go. It came to them in full daylight, flashing its blue-silver rays a few hundred feet over their heads, darting forward, then back.

  • There was to be a birth; that much was clear. Who was to be born they didn’t know. They knew only that they were being called upon to witness it. It would be a great joy for many people, this birth, and they had to be there with gifts to honor the child.

  • The most manageable gifts, they decided, would be gold coins and precious resins, myrrh and frankincense from Arabia, which they could buy at the spice merchant’s booth in the Cochin (India) bazaar.

  • The distance from Cochin to Jerusalem was about three thousand miles. All along the way, the star glided before them, invisible to any eyes but theirs. The star came to a final stop directly above a small stable in Bethlehem. It was twilight. A thin covering of snow lay on the ground.

  • They knocked on the stable door. A male voice invited them to come in, and they entered. In two stalls on the right side, an ox and a donkey stood watching them. On the left, a very young woman cradled an infant in swaddling clothes.

  • When Joseph asked the men why they had come, they said they had travelled from the other side of the earth, far to the east, following a star. Then they laid the gifts before Joseph and Mary, who stared in wonder at the precious objects.

  • Joseph thanked them and asked what the gentlemen wanted. One said that they wanted nothing at all, but if they could sit with him and his family for a while in silence it would be a great honor. Joseph said that that the honor was all his and his wife’s.

  • When the men looked at the child, a great joy rose through their bodies.

  • They turned their attention to Mary. She was looking into the eyes of the infant in her arms. Her expression was the most beautiful thing the two men had ever seen—pure love. This moment, the two men thought, was blessedness itself.

The wise men were fully in the moment. But as they sat there in the stable, they were able to see into the future and were shown who the child would grow up to be.  They witnessed the amazing life of Jesus, and his untimely death. Their visions also included some of the teachings Jesus would share with his disciples, including this one:

The kingdom of God never exists out there, to be seen by physical eyes. It is always here, present, within us. Each of us has to find it for himself, like the pearl or the treasure in the field. And when it is found, the peace inside us becomes an outer peace as well. When we find the kingdom of God in our heart, we can see that it is already spread out over the earth, though very few can see it.

The two men got up and said their good-byes, bowing to Joseph and Mary. They walked out onto the snow-covered ground, closing the door gently behind them.

My new book “Wake Up Call: Daily Insights for the Spiritually Curious” is now available. Learn more about it here.

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