Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
(Matthew 2:1-12) Gospel from the Feast of the Nativity
There are traditionally two Divine Liturgies celebrated in connection with the Feast of the Nativity. The first is the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil and the second includes the Orthros and Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. (When the Nativity falls on a Sunday or Monday, the first Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve is celebrated in the morning and is of St. John Chrysostom. Great Vespers is celebrated in the evening of Christmas Eve, so there is no “Vesperal Liturgy” and Orthros and Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated on the morning of December 25.) The Gospel at the Vesperal Liturgy (or at Vespers) is the Nativity narrative from St. Luke, which included the angels and the shepherds. The Gospel at the Liturgy on the Feast of the Nativity is from St. Matthew, and talks about the visit of the Magi.
As with the passage in Luke, there are definitely differences between how we portray the Magi and what the Bible really says about them. First of all, they are called “Magi” or “wise men” in the Bible. They were not kings, but more likely astrologers or scientists. Of course it sounds a lot easier to sing “We Three Kings” instead of “We Three Wise Men.” The popular Christmas carol perpetuates something that is not correct. Secondly, the Bible is not clear as to how many Magi there were. We think “three gifts, three people.” Again, that is not true. Third, we have this idea that the Magi all came from the same place. We don’t know for sure—we know that the Magi would have travelled with an entourage, so whether there was one entourage or several, we don’t know.
When the wise men came to Jerusalem, they went to King Herod and asked where the Christ was to be born. Herod was upset, worried that any “king” would be a threat to his kingship. Herod asked the wise men what time the star had appeared, making a plan to kill the new king once the wise men had found Him. We know that later on in Matthew 2, Herod will order the slaughter of all male children, age two and under, “according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16) This means that the journey of the wise men took two years and that they didn’t show up at the manger with the shepherds as is depicted in Nativity scenes and in Christmas programs. This is confirmed in Matthew 2:11, where we read that “going into the house” (rather than the cave where Jesus was born) “they saw the Child” (Jesus was at this point a toddler, not a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes).
The wise men brought three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is why we have a tradition of three kings, because of the three gifts. Gold is given for a king, representing new kingdom Jesus has come to begin on earth. Frankincense is for the divinity of Christ. And myrrh was given in anticipation of His crucifixion and burial. The passage ends with the wise men being told not to return to Herod and with them departing to their own country without stopping to see him.
The lessons of this passage are several. First, the wise men were seekers. They were looking for “the king of the Jews.” This is a lesson to us that we are to be seekers of God.
Second, their journey was long. So is ours. I’m sure they had many good days and many setbacks, but they continued their journey until they found the Christ. The lesson here is that we too have to be trusting and committed, as the wise men, to finishing our journey through life and to finding Christ first in this life and ultimately for everlasting life.
Third, the wise men used the star as their guide. They followed the star wherever it led them. They didn’t question it. The lesson for us is to ask ourselves “who is our guide?” Is it Christ? Is it the media? Is it peer pressure? Friends? Addictions? We have to find a godly guide. We have to trust first and foremost in God as our guide. We have to let the Holy Scriptures guide us. It is helpful to have a priest to guide us through confession. It is important that we guide one another by encouraging one another.
Fourth, like the wise men, do we rejoice in the journey or are we continually frustrated? The wise men rejoiced when they saw the star. Again, they didn’t know where it was leading, but they were eager followers and rejoiced over what they were following. We should be doing the same, rejoicing in our journey, looking for the positive signs and people that encourage us and keep us going on the right path.
Fifth, the wise men didn’t come empty-handed to meet Christ. They brought gifts that were appropriate for Him, and gifts that represented the best of what they had to offer. What gifts are we bringing to Christ? How much of ourselves are we offering to Him?
And finally, the wise men did not go back to Herod. They didn’t want to harm Christ in any way. We should also be working to advance the message of the Gospel and not hurt it in any way.
Today He who holds the whole world in His hand is born from a Virgin. He who in essence is impalpable is swaddled in rags as a mortal. God who established the heavens of old in the beginning is lying in a manger. He who rained down manna for the people in the wilderness is breastfed with milk. He who is the Bridegroom of the Church is summoning Magi. And He, that Son of the Virgin, is accepting their gifts. We adore your Nativity of Christ. Show us also Your divine Epiphany. (From the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
The story of the wise men isn’t just a cute part of the Nativity story. Rather, it represents our story—the long journey, the need to trust in God, to get good guidance, to rejoice throughout the journey, to offer appropriate gifts and to protect the message, not only preserving it but spreading it!