When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

The Visit of the Wise Men

Then the child grew and grew, as other little children grow; and for a good while nothing happened except just the ordinary things. But one day, there came to the door some very extraordinary visitors.

Nobody knows how old the child was when they came. Indeed, St. Luke, who was much interested in the beautiful stories of our Lord's childhood, knew nothing about them. So far as he had learned, Joseph and Mary went back to Nazareth after the presentation in the temple, carrying the child with them. But St. Matthew had heard about the Wise Men. One would think, to read the story in St. Matthew's Gospel, that our Lord was as much as two years old when the Wise Men came. In that case, it was at Bethlehem that he learned to walk and to talk, and began to say his prayers, and to learn by heart some of the holy words of the Bible.

Meanwhile, away in the east, nobody knows where, men were watching the sky. They lived out of doors in those countries much more than we do, and the clouds and the stars were of great interest to them. Every night they looked to see the constellations rise and set; and when a comet blazed across the heavens, they were filled with wonder. They did not know that the stars were other worlds. They thought that they were shining jewels set in the blue roof of the sky. They imagined that they formed mysterious sentences, which one might read did he but know that celestial language, and thus learn the story of the earth, both past and future. Especially, they connected the great stars with the great kings; and one of their number, a magician named Balaam, had one day, in a vision, cried, "I see a star and a king!" meaning a king of the Jews.

These men were called Wise Men. They were very well acquainted with the sky, and knew the stars by name. And one night as they gazed, according to their custom, at the lights overhead, behold, there was a new star which none of them had seen before. There it shone, brighter than any of the others, low down in the western sky. And the men said, "There is the star, and in that direction, towards the west, is the land of the Jews. There is a king born! Let us go and see him."

So they started on their long journey. Some say that they were as great as they were wise; that they were kings; that there were three of them,—an old man named Caspar, and a middle-aged man named Melchior, and a young man named Balthaser; that they rode on camels and had a train of servants with them. Indeed, we may imagine whatever we please; for nobody knows anything about it.

On they came, then, over the hard wild ways which lead from the east to the west, till at last they reached Jerusalem; and there they stopped to ask their way. "Where is he," they said, "that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him." But the people knew of only one king of the Jews, and his name was Herod; and he had been born so long ago that even now he was approaching the end of his bad life. That was not the king for whom they were looking. No: there was a new king, a little child. So they went about asking people in the streets, and the news spread,—the news of the appearance of these strange visitors and of the strange question which they asked. People said one to another, "Have you seen those three dark-faced pilgrims out of the far east? Have you heard what they are saying?" And men began to be afraid. They said, "Now there will be war. The two kings will fight for the crown."

Presently, King Herod heard what was happening in the city, and he too was troubled. The thought came into his heart that this new king might perhaps be the King of Glory. He knew that the people were waiting for a king, and that promises of his coming were written in the Bible. Herod was not a reader of the Bible, and he had no idea that the King of Glory was to come from heaven. All that he had in his mind was a vague knowledge that a great king was expected, and a clear conviction that when the king came there would be no more use for Herod; and he immediately determined that he would find the new king, if he could, and kill him in his cradle.

So he called the ministers together, and when they came he said, "Where is it that that king, of whom the Bible speaks, will be born, when he comes?" And the ministers looked into the Bible, and there it was, written down in black and white long, long before, that the King of Glory should be born in Bethlehem. "And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel."

Then Herod called the Wise Men privately, and they came to meet him in his palace, and he asked them many questions. He seemed particularly anxious to find out just how long ago it was when the star appeared. And the Wise Men, who were better acquainted with stars than they were with kings, answered him in all simplicity. And the king said, "You are to go to Bethlehem. Go, and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also." That is what he said,—the bad king, who meant to kill him.

Away they went, then, out of the king's palace, and made their way towards Bethlehem. And as they went, behold, they saw the strange star, shining again in the night sky, as they had seen it in their own land. And they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. The star seemed to go before them, leading them, and at last to stand still over the little village. And under the star was a house; and in the house, the King!

The house did not look much like a palace. Joseph was a carpenter, having nothing to live on but his daily wages. He could afford only the humblest lodgings. Neither did the child look much like a king. There he stood leaning against his mother's knee, looking at the strange visitors with great eyes of wonder, and probably more interested in the Wise Men's camels than he was in the Wise Men themselves. But the Wise Men kneeled before him and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures,—the queer-looking boxes and bundles which they had brought with them,—they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

These gifts were of no use to the child. Frankincense and myrrh are kinds of fragrant gum which are found on trees and shrubs in the East, somewhat like the sticky substance which we find on pines. They were used to make incense. (Frankincense means simply pure incense.) That is, when put on burning coals they made a thick smoke with a sweet smell. Such was the incense which Zacharias was placing on the golden altar when he saw the angel. Thus frankincense and myrrh were used in the worship of God. Accordingly, the Wise Men's gifts were meant only to express the thoughts of their hearts. As they knelt before the child and spread them out at his feet, they said by these symbols what we say in the Te Deum when we sing, "Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ." And since the Wise Men were not Jews but Gentiles, Joseph and Mary may well have recited one to another, after they went, the great words of the Old Testament, "The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. . . . They shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord."

That night, before the next day dawned, the Wise Men had a dream; and, in the same night, Joseph had a dream also. In the Wise Men's dream God told them about Herod, and warned them not to return to him, but to go back to their own country another way. In Joseph's dream, the angel of the Lord appeared and said, "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." So the Wise Men rose up, and, avoiding Jerusalem, went to their homes far in the east. And Joseph also waked and aroused Mary, and they made a hasty preparation for a long journey, and before it was light were a good distance on the road which led from Bethlehem toward the south.

And when the day came, Herod, too, opened his eyes, and he remembered the Wise Men and their errand. "This morning," he said to himself, "I shall know about the King." But the morning passed, and the afternoon also, and no word came from the Wise Men, and at last Herod saw that he would hear nothing more from them, and he was very angry. But he knew that Bethlehem was the place where the King should be born; and he knew, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the Wise Men, that the King could not be more than two years old; so he sent men who killed all the little children in that village, all who were under two. And there was lamentation and weeping and great mourning in Bethlehem among the poor mothers and fathers. But meanwhile the King was on his way, all safe and sound, to Egypt.