“Were we led all that way for birth or death?” That’s the question the Magi ask in T.S. Elliot’s wonderful poem about the three Wise Men’s journey to see the baby king born in Bethlehem. “There was a birth, certainly,” they say. But there was also a death, a death of their own. To come and worship this “newborn king” they must die to themselves. Christmas faith is expressed beautifully in the humility of the Wise Men.
Faith must be an expression of humility. No arrogant, proud, or self-righteous person will ever bow the knee to another. But the Wise Men do just that. They humble themselves. The text of Matthew 2 says:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Magi were magicians and Zoroastrian sorcerers. They had considerable political influence and were highly respected. They had a wide and diverse knowledge base and eventually became the most important advisors to the Kings of the Medo-Persian and Babylonian empires. Yet, here this text tells us that they traveled from the east to come and see this newborn baby, in order to worship him.
We don’t know much about how they came to determine this baby was worthy of their worship. It seems that God uses their idolatrous use of astrology to point them to the Christ. Perhaps these Magi were from Persian and had been influenced by the remnant of Jews that remained there. We know that Daniel and Queen Esther certainly had made some impact on the Empire, such that even some in the Empire “declared themselves Jews” (Esther 8:17). Perhaps they had reason to anticipate the birth of the Messiah as foretold in the Old Testament. Whatever the reason for their coming, they came ready to worship.
This is no small thing. It’s difficult enough to humble ourselves when we have been given such importance, respect, and power, but to do it for a baby is an entirely different kind of humility. The Magi come to bow down before a baby, to worship him. And they do this, it seems, not merely from some sort of political maneuvering. They do not come as part of some royal diplomacy. The text says that when they saw the place where the star rested over the infant Jesus they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (v. 10). To come and see this king was the cause of great joy in their hearts.
It is amazing for us to think that humility could produce such “great joy,” but worship of the living God is a joyful thing. Though humility is a difficult thing for us, when we humble ourselves before the Lord there is “exceeding great joy.” We often refuse to humble ourselves because we believe that it will rob us of joy. To humble ourselves before another is to deny our agenda, to let go of our plans and dreams. But in truth, to humble ourselves before God is to be swept up into a much better dream, a much more joyful plan. The Magi had some understanding of this. They surrendered their rights to respect and authority and power, and they bowed their knees in worship of the Christ child.
T.S. Elliot very beautiful captures some of their surrender in his poem. I love the way that it expresses the nature of Christmas faith. He suggests that the Magi are forever changed by this encounter, that their humiliation is the start to a whole new way of life, of even seeing their old lives. He writes:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Encountering the Messiah, and bowing before Him exposed the futility of their old kingdoms. “These Kingdoms,” they say. You can almost hear the derision in their words. They were no longer at “ease…in the old dispensation” with its “gods.” This journey and its conclusion before the Messiah was a death for them. All Christmas faith is. For to truly believe in this Messiah is to die to self (Gal. 2:20).