Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2:1–2)
We now come to another significant part of Nativity plays: the three wise men. The Bible calls them Magi – the best translation is probably ‘astrologers’. That is to say, they were people who studied the stars looking for the meaning of events and hints about the future.
In ancient times astrologers often believed that God had allowed the heavens to reveal something of the future. This makes a certain amount of sense: the movement of the moon controlled the tides; the stars’ motion measured out the seasons; and the sun brought life. In an uncertain world, any warning of what unpleasantness might be around the corner was eagerly sought.
The glorious night skies – sadly, an all-too-rare sight for modern city-dwellers – with their steady, unstoppable and majestic movement of stars and planets suggested that if God wasn’t going to tell you what was going to happen, his large-scale handiwork might. It’s not unreasonable to think of the ancient astrologers as the forerunners of government scientific advisers and they were probably the brightest and best of their society. Maybe that translation ‘wise men’ is actually the best one.
We don’t really know what it was that the astrologers saw in the heavens but, whatever it was, it was significant enough for them to collect gifts and, probably with a considerable entourage, head off across Arabia on camels. A king was going to be born in Judaea – a king so significant that the very heavens proclaimed his coming. That was such a serious matter that they were not going to miss it.
There is no indication that Matthew or Luke knew of each other’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, and there are some striking and delightful contrasts. In Luke we get the shepherds: local, rural, home-grown Jewish boys – not well educated. In Matthew we get the Magi: wealthy, exotically foreign, sophisticated, non-Jewish and highly educated.
The child born in Bethlehem is for everyone.
It doesn’t matter today whether you are rich or poor, sophisticated or rustic, educated or illiterate, Jewish or non-Jewish, religious or non-religious. Nothing has changed in two thousand years. The good news of Jesus is for absolutely everybody.
You may have three degrees and a university position or have left school at 16; you may have a fortune in the bank or be staring at a pile of final demands. You may identify with shepherds or see yourself as one of the Magi.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, Jesus wants you to come to him.