The Wise Men

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

The carol We Three Kings gets it badly wrong. The Bible doesn’t say they were Kings at all. It calls them magi, people who made their living from forecasting the future based on the positions of the stars. We would call them astrologers, but they were also the leading scientists of their day. They had seen a star that meant to them that a king had been born in Israel. The Bible doesn’t say that the star was anything special to look at, not brighter than any other star, but for this group of people it has special meaning.

We don’t know there were three of them – it’s more likely it was a little band of men and women who traveled as emissaries to Jerusalem to congratulate King Herod on the new prince. Herod was in the habit of killing his sons, realized that these boffins must have detected the signs of the birth of the Messiah and sent them off to Bethlehem where the prophets said Messiah would be born.

The astronomers didn’t meet he shepherds. By the time they’d got to Bethlehem the baby was a toddler and living in house. Joseph had probably found work in the town and the family has settled down until their little boy was old enough to cope with the journey home.

The visitors had brought three gifts: gold, which is what you gave a king, incense, which is what you offered to a god, and myrrh, a spice which was used to stop dead bodies rotting. Christians have always seen these gifts as having a special significance, pointing to Jesus as a king, as God and as one born to die.

So we’ve come long way from the cosy stable with the ox and the ass, the shepherds and the three kings. That picture – the Christmas crib, was first used by St Francis of Assisi in the year 1223 as a visual aid to tell the Christmas story to the local people. St Francis constructed a life-size stable scene with real animals and people dressed in Middle Eastern costumes. In creating the scene Francis also created a picture that has remained the strongest image of the birth of Jesus, a picture that doesn’t depict the way it actually happened, but communicates the nativity more clearly than any words.

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