The magi and the blessing of Christmas

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • January 5, 2007

Much of what we read last month about the opposition to public displays of Christmas was largely irksome and petty. In some circles, for example, it is impermissible to bring red or green cookies to a "Holiday" party.

It is both instructive and consoling, therefore, to remember that Christmas is a great and divine blessing, and one that will never be banished from the world. In this regard, it is edifying to reread Numbers 22-24 where we find the earliest confrontation between Christmas and anti-Christmas, in this case between Balak, King of Moab, and the oracle, Balaam.

Balak was deeply distressed when he observed the immense numbers of Israelites who had come from Egypt to live along the border of his nation. Knowing that they were too numerous for him to defeat in battle, he sought a more devious way of dealing with them. He summoned Balaam to put a curse on the people of Israel: "Look how this people coming from Egypt has overrun the countryside. Come and curse them for me; I may then be able to defeat them and drive them out."

Balaam, however, delivered a poem in which he not only refrained from cursing the Israelites, but pronounced a blessing on them. Three times Balak demanded a curse; three times Balaam delivered a blessing. Balaam was interested only in serving Yahweh: "Even if Balak gave me his house full of gold and silver I could not go against the order of Yahweh and do anything of my own accord, good or evil."

Balaam's third poetic blessing is of special interest, for here he prophesied the appearance of a star proclaiming the advent, in Israel, of a king:

I see him — but not in the present,

I behold him – but not close at hand:

A star from Jacob takes the leadership,

A sceptre arises from Israel.

The frustrated Balak had heard enough, and discharged his unco-operative servant. Long before Christmas, a worldly and envious king tried to prevent its arrival. King Herod, as we know, sought in vain to destroy Christmas shortly after the Nativity.

In Matt. 2: 1-12, we read about "wise men from the East" who were led by a star to the very house where the Christ child was, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Shortly thereafter, they were warned in a dream of Herod's threats to the new baby, and told to return to their homeland by a different route.

Did the "wise men," or "magi" (the Greek expression in Matthew) know about Balaam's prophecy? Certainly, the Jews knew about it and the rabbis understood that the star would herald the arrival of the Messiah. They were also familiar with Isaiah 60:30: "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."

If the magi came from the Arabian kingdom of the Nabateans, bordering on Palestine, it is not at all unlikely, given their frequent contact with Jews who lived there, that they would know about Balaam's prediction. On the other hand, had they come from Persia, as some have conjectured, they would have used a language quite different from Aramaic, and would not have been able to make themselves understood. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that there was time and opportunity for them to secure the services of a translator. If they, indeed, came from Arabia, then, it would be appropriate for the magi to be disposed to appreciate the significance of Balaam's prophecy and set out, once they saw the star, to travel, carrying gifts, to meet and worship the new king. Moreover, incense and myrrh were the principal products of Arabia at that time, and gold was plentiful among the Arabians.

According to the historian, Strabo, magi were sages and wise men, "zealous observers of justice and virtue," and eager investigators of heavenly phenomena. The term "astrologer" was often employed as a synonym for "magi." Christian tradition teaches that there were three magi on the simple basis that there were three gifts.

The blessing of Christmas was prophesied by Balaam and, later, Isaiah. It was opposed by Balak and then, Herod. The magi, indeed, seem to be knowledgeable and wise, for they acted in a way, if not cognizant of the prophecies, then at least consistent with them. They were also humble and reverent, for when they found the child with Mary His mother, "falling on their knees they adored Him" (Matt. 2: 9-10).

The celebration of Christmas may be a point of controversy for some people. But if we take a broader historical view, one that includes the fourth book of the Pentateuch, we will understand that Christmas offers us a blessing that is inexhaustible and a light that is inextinguishable.

(Dr. DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo and adjunct professor of Holy Apostles College and Seminary.)

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