And the Kings Did Come…Finally
(The Jesus Diary Continues…)
We knew they were coming before they got here. Word travels fast when kings are on the move.
Heralds and Foretasters always arrive several days before royalty to prepare the way and eliminate any minor inconveniences that might upset the regal persona.
And so they came. The advance team selected Amnon's roadside inn because it was on the outskirts of town, and the visitors might enjoy more privacy here than if they stayed in the middle of Bethlehem. They tried to be inauspicious, but the whole town was abuzz with the news of the imminent royal visitation.
"Why are they coming?" someone asked. "Who are they?"
Someone responded: "Why are they coming…here? That is a better question." Bethlehem was not a place where elites come to visit. But I felt I knew the reason why.
The royal precursors marched into Amnon's inn and did a rapid inspection. Questions abounded: Are the amenities satisfactory? What about security? Which door is the safest exit? Is there room for the entire entourage? Is it quiet?
The Foretasters invaded the kitchen with their questions: Do you have the right ingredients? Are the vegetables local? Is the meat fresh? Do you cook with olive oil or lard? Are your cooks honest? Are they well paid?
As upsetting as these inquiries were to Amnon I knew they were critical for important people when in new surroundings. Staying in an unknown place might cause security problems for wealthy individuals. The advance team was skilled in identifying potential problems and suspicious people. A room with no quick exit could mean life or death in case of a fire or an intruder. A dishonest cook could kill them all.
That’s why the Foretaster, or "Pregustator," was so important. Rome had experienced several high-level poisonings in recent years. Mushrooms were the usual vehicle, although I know of instances where fruit or even water was the weapon. Praegustators were well paid lest they be tempted by bribes.
The inspections completed, The "Amnon Inn" was found acceptable and worthy. I was appointed the inn's official spokesman. Nervously we awaited the arrival of our special visitors.
It was mid-afternoon when we heard them. Trumpets blared, drums resounded, shofars moaned. The sounds of marching men and animals filled the air. And then they came into sight.
There were three of them. They rode atop magnificent camels, sitting in tiny booths that protected them from the sun and weather. When they arrived at the inn attendants brought ladders so they could climb down. Amnon hired a few burly townsmen as security guards. They quickly dispersed the crowd that followed the kings, who also had their own bodyguards. There was a little grumbling but the curiosity seekers sulked away rather than risk bodily injury.
Amnon bowed. The kings nodded. I thought they might be tired from their journey and need a rest before enjoying some of Amnon's cuisine. On the contrary, they were excited and full of information. A light snack had been prepared and carefully pre-tasted. As we relaxed they told their story.
These men studied the sky. They felt they could derive valuable information about the future from the alignment of the stars, which were fixed in space, and moveable objects that they called planets and which Romans considered to be gods. They also studied the ancient books. Though they were kings, I thought they should be called "Magi," which is a word widely used to describe especially wise and learned men. Not all kings are Magi, obviously.
One of the Magi, Caspar by name, explained their astrological observations. "We study the skies at night, carefully observing the alignment of the stars and their interrelationships with the planets. Occasionally these heavenly orbs will coalesce into various shapes and levels of intensity. Such an occurrence is usually an omen of some great event to come."
"Yes," responded another king, who said his name was Melchior. "And we have seen an especially brilliant commingling of several stars and planets for which we have no explanation." His eyes brightened when he added, "We studied our charts and could find nothing. It's like one giant star!"
"And then it moved!" shouted Balthasar, almost losing his crown in his excitement. "That was when we all said at the same time that we had to follow it."
"That's why he had to come here," added Caspar. "To Bethlehem."
I mentioned the prophet Micah's prediction that out of Bethlehem would come a ruler who would restore the power of Israel.
"Exactly," said Melchior, "A new king in the line of David born in the city of David."
Their excitement was overwhelming, but then Balthasar frowned.
"Out of courtesy," he said glumly, "we visited your king, Herod, and told him about the star and our assessment of its meaning."
"We told him it might be a sign of a new king who has been born or is about to be born," said Caspar. "He seemed excited."
Balthasar's frown deepened. "There was something about him that made me feel uneasy. I thought his excitement was fake."
"I didn't trust him either," added Melchior.
"As a result," Caspar said, "We decided that we will not go back to Herod. I'm not sure what we will find here. But here is where the star has stopped and the prophecies all indicate Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king. And we want to see him."
I was excited to be the one to lead them to see Jesus, but their advance team had already located the shanty, which was surrounded by shepherds and their flocks.
Rather than ride triumphantly to see Jesus, the Magi dismissed their servants and walked through the brush and sand, their regal robes swirling up little puffs of dust like incense. Each carried a beautifully wrapped package.
"How thoughtful," I said to Amnon. "They have brought gifts for the baby Jesus."
"Yes, his first toys," he said.
The shepherds fled when they saw the Magi. The sheep, sensing that they were harmless, remained. The shepherds returned, bowing humbly.
But the Magi bowed even more deeply. Falling on their knees, they removed their crowns, setting them in the dust, and touched their heads to the ground in adoration.
It was completely silent. Mary held up Jesus to see the Magi. He smiled. Joseph indicated that they could approach.
They stepped forward, one by one. Melchior was first.
He knelt, bowed deeply and held out his gift. Mary signaled for him to unwrap it.
We held our breath. The humility of this mighty Magi brought tears to my eyes.
"I offer a gift fit for a young king to show his power and majesty," he said, revealing a tiny crown of gold with sparking gems. He laid it before the crib.
Caspar came forward, knelt and bowed. Almost before he opened his gift I could smell the odor of frankincense. "An incense used before the Most High," he said, "is worthy of our new young king." He set it next to the infant-sized crown. I recalled that Zachariah would have used frankincense in the Sanctuary offering when the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus' cousin John.
Finally Balthasar approached. He unwrapped a sprig of myrrh. I knew myrrh has many uses. It is burned in the Sanctuary as incense. Oil of myrrh has been used to anoint kings and queens throughout history. It is also used by Egyptians in embalming the dead.
He set the sprig atop the tiny crown. I wondered at the significance of that.
After making their final adorations, the Magi picked up their crowns and we walked back to the inn. Amnon's cooks had prepared a feast for the visitors, who set aside all semblance of royalty as they devoured every bit of it. A frowning kitchen staff discovered there were no leftovers.
"We will leave in the morning," announced Caspar.
"And we will not be going back to Herod," added Melchior. Balthasar nodded agreement.
These learned men were an inspiration to me. Their study brought them knowledge of the skies and the scriptures. They were experts in both fields. But rather than flaunting their knowledge before me and Amnon and the humble shepherds, they humbled themselves before a baby. Moreover, by touching their heads to the ground when bowing, actually adored him.
These wise men, sages, Magi, kings, whatever one might call them, demonstrated more than knowledge. They showed wisdom. Their understanding of the mystery of this birth transcended mine. They called him king; they offered him a crown and incense and oil with which to honor and anoint him.
Amnon and his staff celebrated a profitable evening and good tips. But I couldn't sleep. I wondered what Herod would think of this and how mad he would be when the Magi didn't come back to tell him what they had found under the star.