I use king and wise men interchangeably, because history has done so. If we look at Matthew, the term “magi” is used specifically; but our collective understanding of these men is that they were also regal. Thus, they are portrayed as rulers/kings of whatever lands they had left.
Another reason to portray them as kings is because it is a wonderful symbol: Three earthly rulers handing over their riches to the true King of the world. Ancient texts portray them thus, but also highlight them as wise men or magi.
The term magi derives from the Old Persian word maguŝ and is related to the religious caste of Zoroaster. Magi refers to the priestly sect of Zoroastrianism, and these priests were particularly well-versed in astrology. Some scholars argue that the men were astronomers, not astrologers, a notion which I hold dearer; they were definitely not sorcerers. Ancient man was quick to judge the new and unusual in a darker light, and three men arriving from a thousand miles away might give one the impression that some sort of magic was involved. It is sad that the early church writers had to paint such a picture of the Three Kings; in my opinion, it cheapens the experience and makes them seem less than they were.
In the upcoming book We Three Kings—appearing November 28, 2014—these mysterious men come alive in an epic tale. They are real human beings, with foibles and faults. Though they are kings, they are humble rulers; men who are deeply spiritual and seek truth and knowledge in all that they do. Deeply spiritual men, they seek a greater truth, they wait for the Son of Man with patience: they are not agents of evil (as much as the early Church writer Origen wanted us to believe.) When they are gathered together on an evening, a fateful star bursts into being in the western sky.
The three kings follow the star: And that is all that matters.
These rulers unburden themselves of their possessions, their wealth, and power. They simply follow where the star leads.
If you saw such a star in the sky, would you follow? Our own “stars” do not necessarily require us to fight the devil, negotiate with evil emperors, or forsake our homes forever, but they do require a sacrifice. In order to follow what is good and right, in order to do the most good for humankind, we have to suffer a little.
Could you give up your iPhone? Your iPad? X-Box? Television? Could you send that latte money to a charity? How about giving up that reality TV show and work in a soup kitchen on Mondays?
Your star is out there—and though it was very obvious to the three kings, sometimes God isn't so obvious with us. But if we pause all of the devices, still the wild running of our minds, and listen: We can hear what we are being called to do.
No matter the time of year, I encourage everyone to find their star and follow it. It will require some effort to follow, but the rewards will be great (though they will not be monetary.)