The Gospel of today’s Mass tells us that the wise men come from the East. 2 of the greatest cities that lie to the East of Israel’s borders are the city of Aleppo and the city of Damascus, that are known to us today for the war that is taking place but also would have been known to the people in Gospel and biblical times. These 2 cities are amongst the most ancient cities in all of human civilisation and places in which human beings have lived continuously than any other places on the planet – here in biblical and ancient times where the smartest of people, the best of buildings, the strongest and wisest of kings. Further east would be the country that we now know as Iraq, which is recognised the cradle of human civilisation. Here is the first evidence of agriculture and cattle breeding appeared for the first time. Here is where the first writing system came from. Here are writings that speak for the first time of Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology, written Law, Medicine, and organised religion. Here also is the first evidence of an empire being formed.
That simple phrase wise men came from the East is indeed a simple phrase easily passed over, but for the Gospel and the bible everything brilliant, clever, advanced and breath taking came from the East, they were in their shadow. It would not have been surprising to their ears that wise men came from the East.
But the wise men of which the Gospel speak were a specific group of men who would have been known and recognised and acknowledged as having wisdom through looking at stars, people called and known as the Magi . There were plenty of charlatans and quacks and hoaxsters who roamed the ancient world claiming such a title and their knowledge, but these would have been a specific tribe a group belonging to an ancient kingdom, the Medes and the Persians, and their knowledge and wisdom was sought out by their own kings and other kings too.
The Gospel tells us that Herod receives these Magi with the greatest of courtesy and respect. Herod and his own court didn’t think of them as charlatans or quacks but receive them as they would an embassy from a foreign king.
These wise men or Magi would have been known and recorded to have woren princely garments and priestly clothes, just as they are often pictured by us today. Some of this tribe also, because of their wisdom, would be chosen and selected to become princes and kings themselves (that is why we sometimes we call them “the kings”). They were known to walk or come in processions, arranged in different ranks of importance, dromedaries and throngs, as the hymn tells us. The ancient Roman writer Suetonius, who records the coming of the Magi to Rome to acknowledge the beginning of Nero’s reign, describes such a similar procession.
They were admired men in the ancient world who gave themselves over to study the laws of nature and to understanding divine actions.
In the Old Testament, one of the great figures of the Old Testament, Daniel is carried off as a boy into exile to this same land of the Persians and becomes the head of the wise men (the tribe known as the Magi) he interprets visions in the nights and dreams that people have and gives advice to the king. While he occupied that position Daniel is said to have prophesied that 490 years after his death a messiah in Israel, who would be king, would be born in the land of Israel and who would rule over the world. 490 years later took us into the first century, the very time when Jesus was born. In that century everyone was aware of this prophecy and awaited its fulfilment – it is said the Romans knew about it, the Medes and Persians knew about it and so did the Israelites and people took it seriously.
It tells us in the passage from Matthew that all Israel was turned out at the coming of the Magi; they would wait what the wise men had to say.
In the year 2 and 3 BC an astonishing set of activity among the stars took place in the skies, these are recorded in the history books. People were both fearful and in wonder and awe at these signs and would have wondered just exactly what it all meant believing that it was a portent of something. The coming of the Magi would have been seen as an important event to explain the significance, their arrival in Jerusalem is to do with all the stellar activity.
An earlier similar activity had taken place in 69. The Romans in their turn interpreted this to mean the birth a new Roman King. The Roman Senate fearful of such an event ordered the destruction and death of all children born in that year – this is the very year in which Augustus who would become emperor was born.
Herod would have been fully aware of the orders of the senate and maybe his own actions were influenced by the very thing that they had done in trying to make sure that the prediction didn’t come true.
We don’t have to wait for wise men to come from the east today – in this global world in which we lives there are wise men and women who come from north and south and east and west. Recently one of the most famous conferences took place to advertise and exhibit some of the smartest inventions of people today. A machine, which folds your clothes. A toilet which only has to washed once a year. A car that drives itself. A desktop that can cut a glue things. A belt that changes and adjusts to your waistline. A fridge that has a screen on it in which you can see what is in the fridge without having to open the fridge door. A fridge that tells you when some of the contents in the fridge have reached their sell by date. Drones which don’t collide. Shoes that record you steps and have lights in the toes to guide your way in dark nights.
These astonishing devices demonstrate the cleverness, the creativity and the resourcefulness of the men and women of our day. Wise men are still travelling the roads of the world with their kingly gifts.
Some would say if we put the story of the wise men and the story of our world alongside each other that these are two worlds clashing, that these are two worlds in conflicts, that these are two different understandings of things that can never be brought together. The world of faith and the world of knowledge and science. A world of astrologers doesn’t sit well with the world of knowledge and understanding. The world of the bible and world of the laws of nature are in a different orbit.
The wise men in the story of Jesus birth represent different things. People far away from the story that are invited in. People who are pagans who will come to know God. People who are searching for knowledge in every age and who find in this place its source, the place where it comes from, the satisfaction of all their desires to know and understand.
Instead of being 2 worlds clashing these are two worlds brought together. The world of the stranger invited in to the events of the Gospel. The world of the person who seems far awat from God invited to come close. The world of the latecomer who finds, even in the final moment a place. The yearning and desire of someone who wants to know things, the world and the universe, somehow has its source here, unlikely as it seems, here in this tiny remote and insignifant place. Here in this helpless child born in poverty and danger. Here in this long and tiring journey of these men and their arrival at this place somehow sums up the destination of all people who seek the end and meaning of the human journey and their time on earth.