Stable Snapshots: The Wise Men
He cut a rather dashing figure. No one who saw him ever forgot him. He was darkly handsome, dressed always in the splendid, ornate garb of the Orient, though he himself was not Oriental. He was intellectually brilliant, mastering some twelve different Asian languages, though his own native tongue was Italian. He was a courageous explorer, seeing more of the world and its wonders than anyone who had ever lived up to his time. His name was Marco Polo.
Now while you may know the name Marco Polo and while you may know something about his life, you may not know that his incredible journeys through the world as it was known in the thirteenth century, were motivated by one great desire. Marco Polo vowed as he set out upon his journeys that if he had to travel from Baghdad to Samarkand and if he had to spend every gold coin he possessed, he would learn the details of the Wise Men from the East who came to Bethlehem on the first Christmas to worship the newborn king.
Years later, in Persia—what we know today as Iran—Marco Polo came to a place called Kala Atashparston. The inhabitants of that place told Marco Polo of three kings from that region who many years before went off in search of a special child and returned with fantastic stories to tell. They supplied him with a number of details. In the last years of his life, Marco Polo shared with his three daughters, Fantina, Bellala, and Marita, the stories he had been told. The stories were passed down to the daughters’ children and to the children’s children and so on for several generations. Those stories comprise most of what we know about the Wise Men.
You see, the Bible tells us virtually nothing about them. It does not tell us where they originated, or what their names were, or what route they traveled, or when they arrived in Bethlehem. It does not even tell us how many there were. We say that there were three, but the number three appears nowhere in the Gospel story. All of the information which we quite commonly rehearse at this season concerning the Wise Men has come from the stories of Fantina, Bellala, and Marita, the daughters of Marco Polo.
They say that there were three of them. One was Gaspar, from the city of Saveh. He was young, tall, straight as an arrow, and black as ebony. Then there was Balthasar from Harveh. He was middle-aged with the olive skin of Asia and a heavy beard. Finally there was Melchior of Kashan, who was old, bent and withered with years, a Caucasian with a long, white wispy beard. On these details concerning the three kings, the daughters all agreed. But each of Marco Polo’s three daughters told a different story about the journey the three kings made in following the star. The stories may or may not be historically true, but they are spiritually profound and good for our hearing in the Christmas season.
Let’s begin with Fantina’s story because she was the oldest of the daughters.
According to her, after the three kings set out on their journey on camels, the camel of Gaspar scared up a viper which bit the camel on the lower leg. Within an hour the leg had swollen and by morning, the camel was dead. They knew that the star would not stop in its course, but now there were only two camels for the three of them. Gaspar, the one whose camel had died, volunteered to walk. He said: “I am young. You two go on ahead. Though I will linger far behind, maybe someday I will find the newborn king.” So Balthasar and Melchior road on ahead that day. When night came, they looked for the star to continue its guidance, but they couldn’t find it. All through the night they looked and waited, but it never appeared. Discouraged that they had lost sight of the star, they turned around and headed back home. And, of course, as they returned home, they came upon Gaspar, who was walking. He said: “Why are you returning?” They replied: “Because the star is gone. We don’t see it anymore.” “Nonsense,” Gaspar said, “there it is!” They looked up and sure enough, the star was there to be seen. From that point on they agreed that they would travel together, using the two camels and taking turns walking.
The message of Fantina’s story is quite clear. When the Wise Men were apart they couldn’t not follow the star, but when they were together, they could pursue it. Here is testimony to the fact that those who worship the newborn king are to be “members one of another,” are to be “bearing one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” There is testimony to the loving concern which is to bind us to one another in the service of King Jesus.
The Church is under attack today. There are those who try to tear down manger scenes in city halls, those who try to remove crosses from public display. I read of a television station that boasted of the fact that because of the influence of its public service commercials, it was having a positive effect on stopping drug trafficking. Yet when they were approached by a group of Christians who protested that every Christian seen in their programming was portrayed either as a hypocrite or a wimp, they said: “Oh, we don’t have any influence over what people think; therefore what we portray will not lead people to think ill of the Church.” A radio station in New York City entered into an agreement with a group of gay activists that they would never say anything critical of homosexuality on the radio station. A group of Christians asked if they could have the same agreement, and the station refused.
Yes, the Church is under attack—of course, that’s nothing new. But the Church will stand because Jesus Christ has said that not even the gates of hell will stand against His Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, not an organization, but an organism, a living thing. It is a fellowship in which, in its noblest form, there is no egoism, but rather a sharing and a bearing and a caring for one another. And the Church, which in genuine unity follows the Star of Bethlehem will find its way to Christ and to eternal life.
Now let’s move on to the story of the second daughter, Bellala.
She tells of how the three kings, one day on their journey, were resting at an oasis. There they began to discuss what the appearance of the newborn king would be. Gaspar said he thought the newborn king would be black, like himself. He said that since there had been great black civilizations in history long before any white civilizations to equal them existed, the new king would bring black people to leadership in the world. Balthasar immediately disagreed. He said: “The great poets and thinkers have always come from the Far East, therefore, the new king must be an Asian with olive skin like my own.” Melchior quickly jumped into the fray, saying that all of the crises of civilizations in the future would be mastered by the Caucasian race, and so the king would be white. They began to argue and argue heatedly all through the day. Then as they prepared once again to follow the star at night, when they looked up, there was no star to be seen. In the course of their wordy warfare, they had lost touch with that star. Discouraged, they began to comfort each other. And as they comforted each other and shared in a loving, restoring companionship, the star became visible again.
What Bellala’s story teaches is that those who follow the star of Bethlehem must do so without prejudice. Prejudice, of course, is a direct attack upon God. It’s putting God off the throne of our life and assuming that throne for ourselves. It’s saying that we, not God, are going to determine who has worth and value in life. But the fact is that God is still on the throne and God loves the rainbow colors of His children. That means that there is no place in the Kingdom of God for prejudice. We can never hate anything or anyone God loves.
I know a fellow who is thirty years old and has an elderly aunt who lives far away. Every year at Christmas, she sends him a gift—and it’s always a gift for a ten-year-old boy. He always gives the gift to some needy child. But do you see what’s happening there? The aunt is easily able to handle any thoughts she has about her nephew by simply seeing him always as a child, and nothing more than a child. Well, we’re in danger of doing the same thing at Christmas. We look at the baby in the manger and we have a tendency to forget that He grew up. Some of us fall for what I call “The Baby Jesus Syndrome.” The fact is that He grew up. And He said that love is the law of life, and that we are to care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves, and that service is to be the watchword of our existence, and that those who put themselves first ultimately will be lost. Jesus despised prejudice. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords spoke against it again and again by what He did and by what He said. It’s written too large in His life to miss—unless, of course, you don’t want to see it. Those who follow the star must leave prejudice behind. Following the star of Bethlehem is not the pursuit of prejudice—it’s the pursuit of love.
Now let’s hear the third story—Marita’s story.
She was the youngest of Marco Polo’s daughters and she, in her story, tells us that the three kings not only differed in age and skin color, but they also differed in their hopes and dreams. Gaspar, for example, was looking for a king. He wanted someone he could follow in a conquest. He was young and he had goals before him. There were victories he wanted to win. That’s quite commonly the hope and the desire of the young, isn’t it? That’s the reason Burger King says to them that they can “Have it their way,” or L’Oreal says to them “It costs more, but you’re worth it.” All appealing you see, to the youthful desire to climb mountains never climbed before and to set one’s name on those peaks. Gaspar was looking for a king, so he bought the gift traditionally given to a king, the gift of gold.
Balthasar was middle-aged. He had lived long enough to know that mountaintops are not really where life is to be experienced. He knew that he had spent too much time majoring in minor things. So he was looking for someone who could show him the truth, who could lead him to the things in life which really matter, who could give something worth the commitment of his life. He knew that only God could do that. So he followed the star, seeking not a king, but God. That’s why he brought frankincense, because frankincense was used in worship to praise God.
Melchior, the oldest of the three, was very much focused on his past, as many older people are. As he looked back over his life, the sins he had committed, the things he had done wrong, the temptations which had defeated him, all loomed large. He knew that he needed someone who could handle all of the guilt and take away all of that sin. He wasn’t seeking a king; and he wasn’t seeking a god. He was seeking a saviour. Of course, saviours by definition suffer for those they save; so he brought myrrh, which is used to put upon wounds to heal them and which is used to prepare bodies for burial.
So they came to Bethlehem and they saw the newborn child. Gaspar didn’t think that He looked like a king. Balthasar didn’t think He looked like God. Melchior didn’t think He looked like a saviour. But just then Mary, the mother of the child, began to sing the song she had sung when the angels first visited her and told her of the honor which was to be hers. We call that song “The Magnificat.” You remember the words. She began “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” Gaspar thought to himself: “The word “Lord” means “king.” The child must be the king, not of the land of riches, but of the land of righteousness.” And falling on his knees, Gaspar offered his gift of gold. Mary continued her song: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God…” Balthasar thought to himself: “She called Him ‘God’. He must be God come to us in our human experience.” With joy then, Balthasar offered his gift of frankincense. Mary sang on, “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!” Melchoir immediately cried out, “Saviour, O Saviour of the world, save me!” And a great peace entered him as he offered his gift of myrrh.
I think I like Marita’s story best of all, because what it says to us is this: that everyone finds in Jesus Christ what he or she most needs. That is the message of Christmas and that is the essence of Christmas. And that is the essence of the Gospel. No matter who we are or what we may have been, no matter what we have said or done, no matter what our circumstances may be, in Jesus Christ, as nowhere else, we find what we most need in life. That, my friends, is why we gaze upon that star and follow it every year of our lives to Bethlehem to behold the One who came to us at Christmas…