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Magi from the East

[Ancient Faith Radio; December 26, 2007]

Recently I was interviewed for a TV program about the star, the star of Bethlehem, and some of the things that I found out as I was researching it, were pretty interesting to me. Some things about the star, other things about the wise men, or the magi. And here’s the first one: the Bible doesn’t say there were three of them. It just says ‘Wise men from the east.’ It doesn’t say how many. Perhaps there were three. There were three gifts, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, so perhaps that’s where the idea came from, that there were three of them.

But something that I hadn’t put together before is that the wise men had known to watch for a star, and to know that it would mean something significant happening in Israel. The Church Fathers actually trace that back to something that happens much earlier in the Bible. Back when the children of Israel were just beginning to come into the land of Canaan, and fighting some devastating battles against the people who were already living there. Balak, who was one of the kings in Moab, was terrified because he saw that the Israelites were laying waste to everyone who lay in front of them, and so he tried to hire a prophet to prophesy a curse against Israel so that it would not be able to conquer Moab. And he sent his representatives out to get a prophet whose name was Balaam. Balaam lived on the banks of the Euphrates River, perhaps about the area where the wise men came from; it might be the same community going back far enough in time.

And it’s really a good story, often a funny story, in Numbers chapters 22, 23, 24. You see Balak over and over again pleading with Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, and Balaam keeps saying, ‘I can’t choose what I’m going to say, I just have to say what God gives me.’ Over and over he gets there and he starts pronouncing blessings on them, saying that they will be victorious and they will take over the land, and all of those things. And Balak is just tearing his hair out because Balaam won’t say what he needs him to say. And he’s spending all this money. Over and over again, he sets up seven altars side by side and sacrifices enormous quantities of animals on these altars, and then says, ‘Okay, Balaam, we’re ready. Hit it!’ And Balaam once again gives a blessing instead of a curse. So it’s a pretty funny episode in those three chapters of the book of Numbers.

But one of the things that Balaam says is - it’s mysterious too, I’m sure that people puzzled over this for centuries -

‘I see him, but not near. I behold him, but not nigh.

A star shall dawn from Jacob and a man arise in Israel.’

Now that’s a very evocative prophecy, and that line, ‘A star shall dawn from Jacob,’ that was associated by the Church Fathers with the Bethlehem star. And of course that being a metaphor for the star who is the creator of the universe, our Lord, the light of righteousness, who outshines every other light.

So there’s a beautiful analogy there, and the idea is that this prophecy of Balaam was thought over and meditated upon, and passed down for generation after generation of wise men and prophets who lived on the banks of the Euphrates. And finally the time came when these magi, these wise men, recognized that this was the star that Balaam had prophesied about so long ago.

Now, you know St. Romanos the melodist wrote many, many beautiful hymns, and perhaps his most famous is the kontakion that begins,

Today the virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,

and the earth offers a cave to him whom none can approach.

Angels with shepherds give glory, and magi journey with a star.

For to us, there has been born a little child, God before all ages.

Now, you’ll recognize that as the nativity troparion which we sing over and over again on the feast of the nativity. The translation I’m looking at here is by Archimandrite Ephraim Lash who was a priest in England, and it’s a book titled, On the Life of Christ, subtitled Kontakia. And these are sermons and hymns and kontakia written by Romanos. The subtitle is, “Chanted Sermons by the Great Sixth Century Poet and Singer”.

So Father Archimandrite Ephraim Lash has made these wonderful translations and I was going to read for you this one particular verse here at the beginning of this kontakion. As you see, we have this verse that’s so familiar to us, the first verse of the kontakion, and then it comes down a few more verses and the three magi arrive - they are three, as a matter of fact, by about the year 500, the Church has decided there are three - and they show up at the place where Mary is with the child. And Mary and the wise men dialogue, they talk to each other back and forth.

At once the maiden cried to them, ‘Who are you?’

And they answered her, ‘And you, who are you, that you have born such a child?

Who is your father? Who is she who bore you,

that you have become mother and nurse of a son without father?

On seeing his star, we understood that there had appeared a little child,

God before the ages.’

You know that’s the pattern of a kontakion is that it always repeats the last line, it’s used like the chorus. And the wise men continue,

For Balaam laid before us precisely the meaning of the words

he spoke in prophecy when he said that a star would dawn,

a star that quenches all prophecies and auguries,

a star that resolves that powers of the wise and their sayings and their riddles,

a star far more brilliant than the star which has appeared,

for He is the maker of all the stars, of whom it was written of old,

‘From Jacob there dawns a little child,

God before the ages.’

That’s only the fifth verse of something that goes on for twenty-something verses.

This expanded my understanding of the wise men and their being led to the star. These were probably Zoroastrians. It’s a guess, but Zoroastrians were monotheists, unlike most of the other religions of the day, and people say they worshipped fire. Apparently they didn’t worship fire, but they recognized firelight as the best earthly representation of God. The best way of understanding God is to say, ‘God is light.’ Of course that’s something Christians say as well, we don’t disagree on that point. And God intended to lead them to that greater light, to the Lord Jesus Christ, who would be their Lord as well, and to do that, He showed them the light, He showed them the star that would arise out of Jacob, that all of their ancestors had been looking for ever since Balaam made that prophecy. And they followed that light, and it brought them to Bethlehem; it brought them to where they could see that child that they had sought.

So it’s beautiful to see how God takes care of people; that He wants to draw everyone to Himself, not just ones who live in Christian cultures. That He has ways of even reaching people in other religions and bringing them to Jesus Christ, so that they can see that Jesus is what they have sought all that time. What they thought light represented, they can meet in the God-man who is the light himself.

The question about whether you have to be Jewish to be a Christian, the struggle that occupied the early Church, we see already in Bethlehem that God is giving an answer. That you do not have to be Jewish. That you can be one of the descendants of Balaam and you are still welcome in the family of Christ.


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