The foreign magi arrived in the little town of Bethlehem, not as three lone men as many songs and nativity scenes suggest, but likely in a large caravan of many travelers, equipment, and servants—a convoy fit for a long journey bearing great wealth. The magi were learned men disciplined in the field of astrology, who saw in the very stars something that moved them to take a long and difficult journey. They came seeking to pay homage to the newborn and promising king that the skies predicted.
Like the shepherds in the story we know from pageants and figurines, the magi were not looking for a savior. They were attending to their work when they found themselves startled by what they saw in the heavens. Coming from a land far away from the news and beliefs of Israel, they would not have known the ancient promises of Israel’s prophets; they would have had no language to articulate a messiah born to save a people or all nations. They simply saw a star and understood it was the sign of a unique and momentous birth they had to see for themselves.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they would have stood out from the local crowds in their foreign garb and well-traversed caravan. Seeking a king, it made sense that their first inquiry would be to the place of authority, to Herod’s palace, the present king. Matthew reports, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” What the magi likely did not know was that Herod ruled not in greatness of kingship but with great paranoia and deadly tactics of power and destruction. He is described as a madman who put to death many of his own family members, including two of his sons out of fear of their disloyalty and rise to power. Needless to say, when Herod learned of the magi’s journey to behold the birth of a new king, he was angry and threatened by the news. Matthew reports, “[Herod] was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The people of Jerusalem were well acquainted with Herod’s murderous tactics when fear and paranoia reigned in his kingdom.
The story of the nativity, the shepherds and the wise men, the gifts and the star, is one many receive with warm and happy ritual, often regardless of religious affiliation. Whether we hear it merely culturally, with ceremonial nicety, or as the bold story of Christ’s Advent, it is a story we have deemed fit for children’s pageants and music at shopping malls. Yet here, in this story we tell with rightful merriment, a story of joyful news and memorable characters, is also a dark tale of tears and fear and sorrow. Even Christians who thoroughly love the story and believe the accounts of the infant’s birth often forget the costly plot of the magi.
When Herod discovered that the magi had tricked him, leaving town without reporting where they found the child king, he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. At this decree, Matthew recalls what was said through the prophet Jeremiah long ago, now sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-18).
Herod’s violent reaction to the news of a newborn king casts a very sad shadow on a beautiful story. We remember with delight the magi outsmarting Herod by leaving for their country on another road. We remember with triumph that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are able to escape to safety despite the murderous arm of a powerful ruler. But at what despairing cost? For the little town of Bethlehem, Herod’s command brought about excruciating sorrow. In fact, the inclusion of this frightful story at all is a grim and curious addition in an otherwise joyful telling of the beginnings of Christmas. It is no wonder we seldom reflect on it.
But what if its inclusion is precisely what can move us to believe that the story of Christ’s birth is about the world we really know and not a world of fanciful stories, pageantry, and nicety? For here, in the very account of God’s reaching out to the world is an account of humanity’s despairing and destructive ways, as well as the deep and painful suffering of the very real world into which Jesus came. The grave offense of humanity, the pain of the humanity, and the agonizing need for a radically different hope, is all a part of the story.
For the wise outsiders who first paid him homage, it was not wealth or power or significance of a throne that moved them. They carried gifts past Herod the Great to a far greater king with good reason.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.