[Based on Matthew, chapter 2]
George Washington died from an infection which today would have been cured quickly with the prescription of antibiotics. What treatment did the Father of Our Country receive? The most conspicuous was that he was "bled," his doctors twice substantially draining his body of blood. One of Washington's biographers, Richard Norton Smith, reports that the Mount Vernon bedroom in which the first US president died "reeked of blood and stench and sweat."
Were his doctors incompetent quacks? On the contrary, they were among the best practitioners around. They were men of science, who applied the most advanced medical knowledge to the case at hand. But they also employed treatments--like bleeding their patients--which had no sound scientific bases, that were in fact, based on nothing more than superstitious guesswork.
I mention Washington's doctors because they're a bit like the wise men whose story is told in Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. They were, probably, among the most informed and learned people in the near-eastern world, conversant in many spheres of knowledge. At one level, they were prototypical men of science, astronomers who had made studies of the natural world. From the evidence presented in Matthew, chapter 2, they were probably also experts in the field which we today call Comparative Religion. Though they were from "the east" and therefore from beyond the realm of God's people, the Jews, they knew the Jewish Scriptures and its prophecies foretelling the coming of a Savior.
But these erudite scholars also believed in the unverified assertions of blind superstition. The astronomers then, were also astrologers, convinced, like so many credulous people down through the centuries, that distant stars controlled events here on earth.
Perhaps, in their defense, they didn't believe that the stars or other heavenly bodies controlled earthly events. Maybe they thought that they were all like the wild animals in those countries hit by the tsunami last December 26. Scientists have marveled that while the bodies of countless people drowned by the horrific storm washed onto many shores, no such carnage was recorded among the dumb beasts. Unlike thousands of we humans, they somehow sensed the coming cataclysm and went inland away from the waves. Maybe the "wise men" believed that the heavens were like those beasts, that when some cataclysmic or volcanically important event was about to erupt in the world, the heavens , "feeling" it the way a spider feels the slightest movement on a strand of its web, would react.
Whatever the case may be, after the birth of Jesus, these wise men--in the original Greek of the New Testament, literally magoi, magicians, because they also practiced this superstitious art--came to Jerusalem. Biblical scholars today believe that it may have been as many as two years after Jesus' birth. In Jerusalem, they went around town explaining that they had seen the new Savior-King's star and they wished to pay homage to Him. Their aim was to worship Him.
This is remarkable for several reasons:
(1) Coming from the east meant that they were not part of God's people, the Jews. Yet, they saw the new King as being a Savior not just for the Jews, but for the world.
(2) Their interest in this King was pointed to from the vantage points of both religion and dumb superstition. God is able to use any sign imaginable to point us to Himself.
The fact that these followers of foreign gods who engaged in the kinds of superstitious practices condemned by the Bible--the Bible emphatically condemns astrology or dependence on anything or anyone other than God--underscores a truth I try to convey constantly to my Catechism students: Either God gets His way or God gets His way. God was going to make Himself and His will known to the world, even if He had to use unorthodox and unbelieving people to do it. Later, Jesus will tell that even if those who give Him the accolades appropriate for Him as God and Savior were stifled, the very rocks would cry out praises to Him. Like water running down a hill that surmounts its obstacles by finding a different pathway to keep flowing, God always finds a way, finds the people who are open to Him and willing to do His bidding, to get things done.
The king of the Judeans (the Jewish people) was a particularly loathesome and awful man named Herod the Great. If you read non-Biblical accounts of Herod, you'll find that Matthew paints an accurate picture of him. While the Romans were the ones who ultimately called the shots in this conquered territory, as their local sycophant and figurehead, Herod was given tremendous latitude, a privilege he exploited ruthlessly. If you think of people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosovic, or Saddam Hussein, you begin to get an idea of what Herod was like. You can imagine that he didn't greet the news of a new King with appreciation.
He set up a meeting with the wise men, where he told them to let him know where they found this baby Savior so that he could worship Him as well. Of course, that was nothing but a malevolent ruse.
The wise men ventured on, found the baby and worshiped Him. By this time, the child--Jesus--and his family were living in a house in Bethlehem, where He had been born.
The gifts presented by the wise men, of course, each had their symbolic meanings. Gold, of course, is still a valued thing, having more of it connoting greater power and importance for its owners. Gold was thought an appropriate gift for a king.
Frankincense is a gummy substance produced by trees in the Arab lands. Powder from it had a sweet aroma and was used in worship among the Judeans. For this reason, it was seen as a gift to be given to a deity.
Myrrh is another gum or spice. It comes from a bush. It had a bitter taste, but was often ground up to make perfumes. It was often used on those about to die. Jesus was the God-King Who had come to die for our sins.
After the wise men presented their gifts, God told them in a dream to go back home another way, not letting Herod know that they had found Jesus.
A messenger from God--the word angel literally means messenger--came and told Joseph to take the child out of Judea. This is yet another example of a long and repeated motif in Biblical history. When all seems lost and that God's designs can't be executed, God will step in to win the day. Without Jesus being able to fulfill His mission at the time set by God, we would have no prospect of forgiven sin or everlasting life. But Jesus is spared for His mission.
So, off Joseph, Jesus' mother, Mry, and the toddler Jesus go to Egypt, into exile. Herod, enraged that the wise men have not fulfilled his request of them, having determined that Old Testament prophecy called for the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem, arranges to have every male child under the age of two executed there. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this sort of savagery would have been typical of Herod.
[For next time, you might want to read this translation of Matthew, chapter 3.]
Part 1 of this series is here.
Part 2 of this series is here.