I’m talking about those foreign dignitaries who visited the child Jesus in Bethlehem – the story of Epiphany – as described in Matthew 2. This past week, rereading this story again, I did something I have never done before (with this passage of Scripture). I placed myself in the story, like a precocious adolescent who follows the circus as it rolls through town.
As the scene unfolded in my imagination, the details of what I saw were at first simply those found in the Bible and tradition. Maybe three, maybe more or less, middle-aged men of great distinction, education and wealth, dressed in foreign clothing (toga-like, made of fine beige linen embroidered with gold thread and closed with golden clasps, wrapped in a lustrous wool cape), rode up to one of the Jerusalem gates, then got off their camels and made their way on foot with a large entourage to Herod’s palace. In Christmas cards there is no one else around. But this group of beautifully adorned foreigners (no crowns—I do not envision them as kings as the Christmas carol goes, but I do picture them wearing gleaming rings and arm cuffs), with their servants, cooks, etc., was a sight to behold! As my imagination filled in the landscape, other people appeared and I was not alone. Among the throngs of people were the chief priests and other religious leaders, also curious about the strange visitors.
The scene I saw in Herod’s palace was different than as depicted in the movies, where the actor Herod displays for the viewing audience some small hint of deception that lets us know he is not sincere. On the contrary, as I slid unseen along the wall of a portico in Herod’s throne room, his face was not devious as I had imagined, but benevolent and genuine. Sly man!
In a recent sermon my pastor provided a quote concerning Herod from none other than Cesar Augustus. “It is better to be Herod’s swine than his son,” the great Roman Emperor had said. He knew Herod’s reputation well, as a murderer who put his own family members to death in order to secure his throne. Apparently Cesar thought that such a ruthless, unscrupled man would make a good ruler to keep the Jews in line.
But the wise men did not know this. As they left Herod’s palace, I could hear them discussing among themselves the humility of this man appointed King by the Romans, who appeared to be truly interested in meeting – even worshiping – the one born King of the Jews.
The chief priests, scribes and Pharisees heard this talk too. A baby born King of the Jews? Had the Messiah finally come? Walking along the western road toward Bethlehem, I saw these men stop and stand in knots, discussing the possibility and arguing amongst themselves while the rest of us strode on, with Bethlehem in our sights.