Behold, the Magi from the East: An Advent Narrative
The following was written by my friend Doug Overmyer. He’s been sharing his thoughts for each week of the Advent in our the best college essays ever. This narrative written for week three is particularly moving, and I wanted to share it with the wider E.I. audience. Please feel free to share this link with your friends. Also, you’re invited to join our discussion group on Facebook to see all of Doug’s contributions along with many other lively discussions. Merry Christmas and enjoy!
It’s Week 3 of the Advent.
Two superpowers have collided and a state of antagonism and violence lay between them. The Parthian Empire (modern day Iran) had killed the great Roman Senator Crassus and decimated his army of 40,000 during Crassus’ ill-conceived invasion in 53 BC. The Parthians then intervened during Rome’s costly civil wars, overran much of Syria and installed a new King of the Jews in Judea, driving away the Roman vassal, King Herod.
Yet, the Parthians were overextended and Rome had captured the Parthian king’s son. They withdrew from Syria, and Rome quickly retook Judea, reinstalling Herod. Parthia negotiated the release of the Parthian king’s son, and the Romans threw in a slave girl to sweeten the deal. The Parthian king married the slave girl and elevated her to Queen. She bore him several sons, and sent all but one back to Rome.
Tensions along the border seethed and the threat of a general war loomed over the border provinces from Judea to Armenia. Rome militarized the borders in anticipation of a costly war everyone saw coming, but which Rome, still recovering from its own ghastly civil wars, wanted to avoid.
In this environment, a Jewish laborer learned his fiancé was pregnant, although they had not had relations.
In the Parthian Empire, two bodies of nobles determined the next king, should the line of succession not be apparent. One of the bodies consisted of the Magi, an ancient order which six centuries earlier saw the Jewish prophet Daniel at its head.
When looking for the next king, the Magi conferred the stars and sent traveling parties throughout the lands. The succession seemed secure, until about 2 BC, when the Queen, that former slave girl sent from Rome, murdered her husband, elevated her son to the throne, and then married him.
Such a state unnerved the Parthian nobles and the traditional sensibilities of the Romans. “What hath we wrought?” the Roman Senate asked itself (not for the first or last time) and sent more troops to the border. Herod and the other border kings were under strict orders to not provoke a war. Meanwhile Magi conferred and sent parties out.
About that time, a certain star had appeared in the sky.
It was not unusual for Jews in the Parthian Empire to visit their relatives in Judea bearing gifts, which sometimes took the form of vast wealth. Such treasure-laden parties would be tempting targets to local leaders and their armies or bands of pirates. Thus, the caravans would be guarded by contingents of mercenaries or official Parthian troops, sometimes as many as 10,000.
Such an army showed up one day in Jerusalem, with Magi bearing gifts and looking for the new King… of the Jews.
That was unexpected. Were the troops a vanguard to a general invasion to replace Herod again, as had happened just a few decades before? A prelude to a war that would lay the whole region waste, a war everyone wanted to avoid? As so often happens to the Great Powers, events sometimes have a mind of their own. Herod knew this and was determined to not trigger an event to lay waste to the whole border, an event that would likely see his head separated from his body by either the Romans or the Parthians.
A suburb of Jerusalem, one that still considered itself the city of David, had family issues of its own. In response to the Empire’s summons, a betrothed couple, which traced its line to King David himself, had returned home and given birth to a son.
Mysterious circumstances surrounded the birth and rumors started by local shepherds had faded, but everyone knew the son that she had birthed was not the husband’s. Although rejected by the community, they had decided to stay in town for a time and moved into a house. With war tensions so high, new construction must have stopped (no sense in investing in new buildings that will get destroyed in a war), making money to support a family hard to come by when the husband was a carpenter. Added to financial stress came the distress of the town gossip about the bastard son and his loose mother.
Word spread like wildfire: an army guarding some Magi had appeared in Jerusalem. Roman troops went on alert, but King Herod had warned everyone to not provoke the Parthians, since such visitations weren’t uncommon. His scouts indicated no host of invading Parthians threatened the region. But the tidings of the Magi were confusing. The tidings out of Parthia in general were alarming. Herod sent word to Rome, requesting more forces.
And then the Star reappeared. Joseph, Mary, and everyone in town saw it.
And then, then one day, a parade of the Magi and their troops through town led to a knock at the door of Joseph’s house. The foreign dignitaries saw the young boy, not yet 2 years old, and they bowed.
And they presented gifts.
Imagine going from poverty to exceeding wealth in an instant. Imagine what those that rejected Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus must have felt. Imagine the items Joseph thought to shower on his wife and son, the new clothes, maybe an apartment in Jerusalem. He’d never have to work again.
And then, imagine the trepidation of Joseph, knowing the eye of both Rome and Parthia must now be on him and his family. He would look at his adopted son in love, and wonder what must he do with his newfound wealth to protect his family.
And so he prayed. “God. What should I do?”
God answered sooner than he expected: “Run to Egypt. You can afford it now. You’re correct: My Son is in danger. Don’t wait another minute. Go.”
We live in a world of clashing empires, political strife, and bewildering events outside our control. In the midst of that backdrop, the drama of our lives unfolds.
And in the midst of that, look to the Son. Marvel at who he is, what he means, what he is worth. And then pray, and ask God, “What must we do?”
For this is the meaning of Christmas.