WHILE JOSEPH and Mary with the child Jesus were still staying in Bethlehem, the city of Jerusalem was stirred by the coming of some men from a land far away, with a strange question. These men were not Jews, but were Gentiles, which was the name that the Jews gave to all people except themselves. All Romans and Greeks and Egyptians and all others who were not of their own race, the Jews called by the name “Gentiles.” These Gentile strangers who came to Jerusalem were asking of everybody whom they met this question :
“Can you tell us where is to be found the little child who is born to be the King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east, and we have come to do him honor?”
Who were these men, and what was the star that they had seen?
We are not certain as to their land, but it is generally thought to have been the country now called Persia, then known as Parthia, a land about a thousand miles to the east of Judea. Although some Jews lived in that landfor Jews were to be found then as now in all lands, especially in large citiesthe people of Parthia were not Jews, but, as the Jews called them, Gentiles. Although not of the Jewish race, these people were like the Jews in one respectthey never bowed down to worship images which men had made. They worshipped the One God of all the earth; and they prayed with their faces toward the sun. They said that they did not worship the sun, but the One God who was like the sun, the light of the world.
Among these Parthian people were many men who at night studied the stars in the sky. They did not have telescopes, as those who look at the stars now have, to bring the heavenly bodies, the moon, the planets, and the stars nearer to them; they could only use their own eyes, but by long study they had learned much about the stars, could tell of their movements and where in the sky to find each one of them. The men who gave their lives to this study of the stars were called Magi, a word meaning “Wise Men”; and these strangers who were seeking the child-king in Jerusalem are sometimes spoken of as “the Wise Men,” sometimes as “the Magi.”
The people of that time believed that when great kings were born, or before they died, strange stars suddenly appeared in the heavens, shone for a time and then as suddenly passed out of sight. A year or perhaps two years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, such a star, very bright, that had never before been seen, began to shine. In some way it came to the minds of these men that this star pointed to the coming of a great king who was to rule over all the lands, and who was to be found in the land of Judea.
These Wise Men at once made up their minds to go to the land of Judea and see this child-king. It was a long and hard journey of more than a thousand miles. They must pass from the high plains of Parthia down to the lowlands of Babylonia, must find some way to cross two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Then they would come to a vast trackless desert, where nothing grew and there was no water. If they went around this desert they must follow up the Euphrates River far to the north, and then traveling southward under the shadow of lofty mountains, they would come at last to Judea, and to Jerusalem, its largest city. Through all that long and trying journey, which would last a year, traveling most of the way on camels, they saw the wonderful star in the sky seeming to lead the way.
From the story as told in the Gospel by St. Matthew it appears that when these men came to Jerusalem the star was no longer shining. However, the loss of the star would not matter so much, now that they were in the King’s own land, for they supposed that everybody in that country, and especially in the city of Jerusalem, would know that their Prince was born. But to their surprise, nobody seemed to have heard about the newly-born King. They did not meet the shepherds of Bethlehem, who had seen the angel on the night of Jesus’ birth, nor did they hear of old Simeon and Anna who a month or more before had seen the Christ-child. Very, very few were those who knew that the King had come, and none of these few people did these strangers chance to meet.
They thought that at one place they could surely learn where to look for this young Prince. That was the king’s palace in Jerusalem. Herod was still living, although old and very feeble, yet as fierce and cruel as ever. Perhaps they thought that this Prince for whom they were looking might be a son or a grandson of the king. Herod did not live in Jerusalem, for he did not like its people and he knew how greatly its people hated him; but he had a palace in the city and he came to it often for short visits. He may have been in Jerusalem when the Wise Men came; or they may have sought Herod down at Jericho, twenty miles away, where most of the time he lived.
As soon as the old king heard the question of these strangers, and learned that they had been led by a star to his land, he was filled with alarm. A child born to be king of the Jewsif there was such a child, what would become of Herod’s own throne and crown? If he could find where this child was, he would send his soldiers to the place and soon kill him, as he had killed many others whom he suspected of seeking to take away his kingdom. But Herod hid his cruel purpose, and spoke kindly to these strangers about their errand. He asked them when the star appeared, how it looked, and how they knew that it showed that a king had been born.
Then Herod sent for the wisest men in his land, the teachers of the law who lived in Jerusalem. He knew that all the people were looking for the coming of their Messiah-king, whom they also called the Christ.
“Can you tell me,” asked Herod, “in what place this great King, the Messiah or Christ, is to be born?”
The scholars were ready with their answer. They said:
“In Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David, this King who springs from David’s line shall be born. This is what the old prophets have said.”
And they read to him one of the promises of the prophets that the King should come out of Bethlehem.
Then Herod sent again for the Wise Men, and asked them to give him the exact time when they first saw the star. When he had learned the time, he thought at once that this long-looked-for King must have been born in Bethlehem less than two years before.
“Go to Bethlehem,” said Herod to the Wise Men, “and search through the town until you find this child; and when you have found him, come and tell me, for I wish to do honor to this King.”
That was what Herod said; but what he meant to do was a very different thing, as we shall see.
The Wise Men at once started for Bethlehem, which was only six miles from Jerusalem. They went over one of the mountains, and then one said to another :
“Look, there is the star once more! See it in the sky just before us!”
The star stood over the road leading to Bethlehem, and again they followed it rejoicing. It led them straight to the city, and then to a house, over which it seemed to pause. They knocked at the door, and when it was opened they went into a room, where they found a baby lying in its young mother’s arms.
These Wise Men knew at once that here was the King for whom they had sought so long and traveled so far. They bowed before him to the ground to show the high honor in which they held him. Then they opened the treasures which they had brought from their own land, and gave to him rich gifts, such as were presented to kings. They gave him gold, and frankincense and myrrh, the fragrant gums that were used in offerings and were very costly. Thus, while in his own land only a few people showed their gladness at the coming of their king, the strangers from a distant country came to pay him honor. We would have thought that some of the learned Jews, who could tell King Herod where the King was born, might have come with the Wise Men to see him. But these great scholars really cared very little about Jesus. They stayed at home and soon forgot the men of the east, their journey, and their question.