Micah:5:2 : “But thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall come forth unto me he that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been of old to everlasting.”
Note: There exists a legend about the Magi: On the way to Bethlehem, the Magi lost sight of the Christmas Star. Fortunately they knew their destination–Bethlehem. They arrived well into the afternoon. After settling near a local inn, it was close to dusk when one of them went to draw some water from the inn’ s well. An unusual phenomenon gave them what they needed–at the bottom of the well — and remember–as far as we know–this is an old legend.
Jerusalem, November, 7 b. c. :
When you’re a reporter looking for a story, you find the biggest newsmaker in the biggest town and just chill-out, waiting for anything to happen. On the Judean “beat”, that means you hang-out in Jerusalem, and, of course, the person to watch is King Herod. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you stumble upon a big story. I must be pretty lucky, because what I’m about to relay to you is, probably, the biggest story in history!
It was late afternoon and I was at my favorite hang-out–outside the East Wall of the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem. It was the most used entrance, and, I also had the best vantage-point of any action–going in or coming out. I didn’t dare try to enter temple grounds: there are several areas inside the temple where gentiles are forbidden–under penalty of death–which was well-known to be among Herod’s favorite penalties! King Herod (the Great) had not been feeling well lately–something about some unknown or undiagnosed malady causing him lots of pain. Anyway, I wasn’t going to chance raising his ire, even from a perceived transgression of sacred ground.
The Temple of Jerusalem
At this time I witnessed quite an arrival. It was a procession the size of one usually belonging to a visiting dignitary, however, all I observed was three stately-looking men in the lead. All of them dressed in garments resembling those worn in areas North and East of Judea. What set them apart immediately was their pants–typical of Babylonian and Persian areas, and almost never seen on Judeans. After some brief consultations at the gate with some priests of the Sanhedrin they entered–just the three of them. The remainder of the procession waited outside and gave care to their camels.
I approached the lead attendant of the remaining group. He was quite an affable man, named Azariah. His story definitely got my attention. The entire caravan had been on the road approximately 5 months. He wasn’t sure since he had nothing that measured days, weeks or even months. His approximation was based on cycles of the full moon. The men who led the caravan were called the Magi. They weren’t kings, but very learned men, scholars, who were extremely advanced in the study of movements of the stars. I mentioned “Astrologers”– but he never heard that word before. He added that their studies were proven accurate in predicting many different events.
“Azzie” ( my nickname for him–he liked it) added that unlike Kings or other members of nobility, the Magi mingled & spoke with common workers almost daily. They seemed to welcome inquisitive minds regardless of who they belonged to. The oldest was Melchior, with white hair and a long beard, then there was Gaspar, who looked the youngest since he was beardless with a ruddy complexion. The third was Balthazar, slightly older than Gaspar, but black-skinned with a heavy beard. My host said that when asked where they came from, the Magi would only admit to somewhere in the Babylonian region. This made sense to me because I heard that Babylonia was a world leader in knowledge of astronomy and astrology. Azzie didn’t know their origin because he wasn’t with them when the journey began. He lived in a small village, north of Babylon, less than halfway to the town of Mari, first city as you go northwest on the trade-route to Jerusalem. They reached his village in need of a lead attendant. The current lead-man became quite ill and would be unable to complete the trip. His family would be able to nurse the lead-man back to health while Azzie took his place–a fact that made him a front-runner for the job. The Magi cared about their workers and this set their minds at ease.
At this point I asked, “ Okay, but why was this trip even necessary? It’s not like Jerusalem was the other side of the world, but it’s still a five to six month trip! What was so important? The answer I got left me speechless! Bottom-line—the Magi had to come to Judea to pay homage to a newly born “king” of the Jews. The long awaited Messiah had been born! Needless to say, that answered my question–big-time! The obvious follow-up: “Azzie, how did they know? Did they tell you anything?”
The nicest thing about talking with Azzie is that he got right to the point. Politics or other considerations didn’t cloud his language. Anyone who knew anything about Jews knew about the Messiah. His coming has been fore-told for thousands of years. He was to be the great deliverer of the Jews…and all mankind! We sat down next to a small grouping of camels. Talking seriously while standing could have been construed as conspiratorial–certainly not something you would want next to the home castle of a vicious king.
Azzie began, “ Yes, my friend. They explained it to us, even though they knew we wouldn’t understand. You see, they, and all other wise men in their area, were familiar with Jewish prophecies about the messiah’s coming. Their study of the stars predicted to them WHEN he would be born! I didn’t know what was more amazing–the birth of a god among humans, or that the Magi could predict when it would happen! It has to do with some stars they had names for.” He took a deep breath and continued, “ The names were Saturn and Jupiter. Also, there’s another group of stars called Pisces, and when Saturn and Jupiter took the same position in the sky, appearing as one star, and entered Pisces together–that meant something very important was about to happen for the Jews”. I quickly jumped in asking, “Did they use the word conjunction?” With a quizzical look on his face he said, “I don’t know exactly–that sounds familiar. But the amazing thing was that they knew it would happen ahead of time! That’s right! They said that they could compute the movements of the stars. They actually started their journey before this first conjunction happened!”
I knew what a conjunction was, and that it was something that usually carried significance to an astrologer. Then I gave a short laugh, saying, “Azzie, relax a minute. Your explanation is wonderful! But, you said “first”–were there more?
“Oh yes”, he added, then quickly back-tracked, “..and no.” You see, they said they were expecting to see another one while they were in Jerusalem. We just arrived here and they haven’t seen it yet.” I didn’t know if he could answer my next query, but I asked it anyway, “Do you know what they are doing with the Sanhedrin? What might they know?” He answered with a wry smile, “ I’m not sure, but I think they want to know what the high-priests have heard about it, and, where the birth might be taking place. They said they have an idea where it might occur. Other than that, I only wish they would consult me before they do anything.” His smile continued as he asked me, “ If you wish, you can come with us for the rest of our journey–if you don’t mind working as my assistant. The pay is, of course, minimal.
I replied, “Just sign me up–money is not the issue with this story! When do I start?“Immediately. I need help cleaning up the camel dung”, he said laughingly.“When we’re finished, you can head home and pack some things. Then come back here and sleep with us. I’m thinking that we’ll probably rest overnight and start our journey, wherever we’re going, in the morning. Plus, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get to know the camels–they can be quite finicky with strange faces.”
With that last comment, I gave him a quizzical glance. He picked up on my non-verbal cue and added, “Just be sure you’re talking to the right end–sometimes you cannot tell the difference!” We both laughed as I left.
Within a couple hours I returned. The magi had finished their business within palace walls and were seated around a small camp-site finishing, what appeared to be, a meager meal. Azzie introduced me, and, in a most unassuming manner, they invited me to sit, which I couldn’t wait to do. This invitation to sit was their recognition that I was welcome to join in their conversation. I thanked them for their action and asked them what had transpired in the palace. As was customary, the eldest-Melchior- spoke first.
“I realize that Azariah loves to converse with anyone who gives him the opportunity. So I assume that he’s given you the details about our trip?”
“Yes sir. And it’s an incredible story–one that needs to be told.”.
“Yes Bill, and I’m sure it will be, but first, I must ask you what you know about this King Herod? We’ve heard many things. However, we know better than to always go by rumors.”
“Very sound, sir. But all I can say, is that Herod is incredibly ruthless.”
I gave them Herod’s background and list of achievements, but finished with the following observation, “But, of course, anyone who ever disagreed with him, including members of his own family, came to a most disagreeable end.”
Balthazar noted, “We do understand, but remember, that this would be rather common among Kings.”
Gaspar jumped in, “Indeed, we must remember that all kings are not known for being open-minded.” Then he smiled as he added, “We are not surprised by your description of Herod, though he appeared quite intelligent in person. Usually, established kings are also very diplomatic.”
I quickly exclaimed, “You met King Herod? Did you tell him the purpose of your visit?”
Melchior answered, “Why yes. Only for a short time, but why hide our purpose? After all, we need a little more information and he helped us. Did we do something wrong?”
“I can not judge that, but, first–did you find out where the Messiah would be born?”
“Yes, and, fortunately it’s not far–only about four hours away. It’s a town called Bethlehem.”
“Well, lets hope Herod is very open-minded. He hates competition, and I think the Messiah might definitely qualify for that. But, I don’t want to cast any foreboding thoughts…not yet at least.”
Gaspar yawned and replied, “Excellent. Thank you. Well, maybe we can find out more from him in the morning. He insisted that we meet with him before we leave. With that last bit of news perhaps we should get some rest. Tomorrow will be very busy… and, perhaps, quite eventful.” He looked me directly in my eyes as he concluded,” Bill, thank you for your direct manner. My companions and I have to check the skies before turning-in.”
I returned his courtesy, “The pleasure of your conversation has been its own great reward. Goodnight.”
Fortunately, Bethlehem was close because the “short” morning meeting with Herod lasted the entire morning and into the early afternoon! But, Azariah had us pack everything so we were ready to go. When the Magi came out of the East Gate, they had some quick words with Azzie, then came over to me and quickly told me to ride with them.
As we journeyed South towards Bethlehem, I couldn’t help notice their faces taking on more of a “glowing” disposition–almost euphoric. I tired of waiting for them to give me the cues to talk, so I started things off: “Your Majesties…” (using this term as complementary; I knew they weren’t kings) “…if I didn’t know any better, I’d say things went well with Herod?”
Balthazar answered, “Not necessarily…not bad…not good. He wanted as much information as we could explain. I wasn’t sure if he was more interested in the ‘if’ as much as in the ‘when’ part of our calculations. Thanks to you we were prepared for dealing with his questions. But that’s not why we feel ecstatic.” He got this giddy grin on his face as he continued, “You see, last night we saw it again–the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn into Pisces happened again last night. It has MONENTOUS meaning.”
“And…” , I added, coaxing him to continue.
“And…that confirms our calculations! We know what will happen…I mean, what already has happened….HE IS BORN!”
I excitedly jumped in, “Did you mention this to Herod?”
“Yes, but it shouldn’t matter! He will be safe. After all, his father will protect him!”
He dug his heels into his camel to speed up. As all of us followed his action, he roared at us over the commotion– “Quickly–let us make haste.” His last exhortation made our spines tingle, as it would have for any mere mortal: “Tonight, with luck, we shall see God incarnate!”
Psalm 68:29: “Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee.”
We arrived in Bethlehem about a couple hours before dusk. It was an amazing sight. A little hamlet–normally with only abut 1,000 inhabitants, had transformed into a crowded hub of humanity. This was because of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar’s order that all residents of Judea were to return to their home-land and register for a census. We could only guess that the total number of visitors to be a few thousand. The big question was how would we be able to find a newborn in all of this?
Melchior assigned us our tasks while he went to seek accommodations for the group. He returned in about thirty minutes and directed us to an open area we could use as a camp-site. While I worked with the other attendants setting up tents I noticed the Magi seriously discussing something. I couldn’t hear them. However, their euphoric visages of earlier were replaced by tense and worried looks, with some of their exchanges being a little “loud”. They waved me over to them. I arrived, and kept to the same tact of “extreme” courtesy I used before now. I looked at all of them directly, and said, “I would be honored if I can be of any service to you.”
“You can if you control the Heavens!”, said Melchior.
He continued, “We are perplexed as to how we find a man, his wife and a newly born infant in this sea of humanity!” Also, we trusted on seeing our conjunction “star” one last time. All our calculations, which have been totally correct and accurate until now, told us to expect it three times. We should have seen it by now.” Then displaying a slightly exasperated look, he added, “Gaspar, come with me. I’ll need your youthful energy to help find a local mid-wife. Perhaps she was involved in a local birth and might know where to find them. Balthazar, perhaps you and friend Bill wouldn’t mind drawing some water from the well.” As he finished his command he motioned to a nearby well. Both of us just mentioned one word: “Yes.”
It was only about ten steps to the well. Balthazar got there first. To his credit, and subsequent good fortune, he started drawing up the water, rather than waiting for the “commoner” to get there and do all the manual labor. I took in all the common motions associated with drawing water so I could be ready to grab the bucket from him when he got it to the top of the well.
Suddenly, he started some movements that were very puzzling. He stopped , moving his head forward into the opening. With his mouth open wide, he jerked his head back–looked up–then back into the well; up, then back again. He looked at me shouting laughingly, “ It’s here—it’s here!” Then he turned in the direction of the two departed Magi, “Melchior…Gaspar…come! It’s here!” He finished his exclamation by pointing upwards. After a few bewildering moments, they realized what Balthazar was referring to, and quickly moved toward us. As they arrived Balthazar shouted, “We were never wrong. It was here all along!” He brought Melchior over to the edge of the well–pointing into it–then directed the elder’s gaze up to an exact point of the sky. A huge grin enveloped the lower half of Melchior’s face, as he turned to me, with hands clasped together. Then, he placed his hand on my shoulder, pulled me to the edge of the well, pointed downwards, and said, “Praise God–friend–look there–in the water…at the bottom of the well!”
At first, when I looked into the bottom of the well, I didn’t notice anything. Then Melchior leaned over next to me, then said in a fatherly tone, “ I forget that you’re not a trained observer”. The he took my left arm at the base of my forearm, just above the elbow, saying, “Hold out your index finger.” He moved my arm straight up, then a little left. “There, you see it now? There, just above your index finger!” When I saw it…it was stunning. “How is it possible to see in at the bottom of the well, and not with normal observation?” He answered, “It’s something that we’ve only heard about, never seen–until now. The patriarch continued, “ What happened was that the star was always where it is, now. But the sunlight was so bright at this particular point in our world it blocked out any sight of the conjunction–even though it appears as one star, brighter than any other star in the sky. But the long, dark shaft of the well restricts the vast amount of bright light that was blocking our view. Also, the still water at the bottom is a perfect lens to capture the image. Now, Gaspar and Balthazar are calculating its exact position–we’re sure it will show us the way. Now, why don’t you and Azariah pass out some rations to the other men. The three of us must change into garments fit to meet a king! We all must hurry!”
The entire procession was and moving when dusk was over- taken by the early nighttime sky. I noticed the star was still visible, but much lower in the sky–and becoming dimmer! We arrived at our destination–only about 20 minutes from our encampment. As we walked towards a very basic structure resembling a small stable, or manger, I was overcome by humility. The night was incredibly still–hardly a sound. But the Magi, in their kingly attire, were breathtaking! In red, blue and purple satin robes with hats to match, anyone seeing this would think they were the true kings!
Yes, we all had the chance to see the newborn king. However, I must end the story here. This will sound somewhat dramatic, but subsequent events have cast an ominous shadow into my recounting.
Early this morning, the Magi and their procession bid me a fond farewell. Gaspar explained that over-night all the Magi had the SAME dream! According to him, they received a message from an angel warning them not to return home thru Jerusalem; that they should take another route and soon. This confirmed my fear that King Herod was somehow the reason for the warning. Therefore, I will not give any other details about visiting Jesus, the infant’s name, lest those details are used in ways to identify him. Despite the huge celestial birthday announcement, “stealth” should be the new by-word.
Also, I realized the true meaning of Balthazar’s words from the night before, when he said “…his father would protect him.” What occurred at the bottom of the well was not some chance occurrence. It was really God’s way of protecting his son. If the Magi knew what the star meant, then there would be others who would also know the meaning. What better way of protecting him than to hide the “messenger” of his birth. I laughed at the thought of it. The greatest event (possibly) in the history of the world, and it’s calling card could only be found…. at the bottom of a well!
The Shrine of the Magi at Cologne Cathedral
To All of you: Have a Blessed and a Merry Christmas. Thank you for being readers!