I’ve always loved the Magi in the Christmas stories. They’re mysterious, magical, powerful, wise …. all things I want to be.
As a child I always wanted to play the role of a Magus (singular of Magi), but instead usually ended up as a shepherd. For some reason the Christmas plays our church performed centered more on the Luke account.
The plays would give the Magi little or even no speaking roles, while the shepherds got lots of lines. A couple of years the plays even focused almost entirely on the shepherds. Since I was really good at memorizing lines, I pretty much always had the wordiest role.
So, most years I would don an old robe, grab a crooked staff, and go out there to yell and run around as angels and a star scared us (I later realized the star part doesn’t actually fit with the shepherds, but the plays even took those lines away from the Magi).
I would also watch the kids dressed in cool outfits walk in, silently drop some gifts, and vanish. Oh, to be the Magi!
During a stopover in Dubai a few years ago while traveling to South Africa for a Baptist World Alliance meeting, I visited the large spice market and the neighboring gold market said to be the largest in world (since Dubai basically tries to build the biggest of everything, like tallest building and largest mall).
I didn’t buy anything that glitters. But I picked up frankincense and myrrh over in the spice souk (or market). The yellowish frankincense came from Oman and the reddish myrrh from Somalia.
The third gift for myself I brought home was some delightful spiced Arabic coffee. A wise purchase!
Later that year for Christmas, I read the story of the Magi to my son. I then set a piece of each of the two spices on tinfoil with an unscented candle burning underneath so we could understand a bit more about these unique gifts. I burned some of the frankincense first, which might have been a mistake since it smells better than myrrh and would’ve been a better last scent.
My son remembers those two gifts if you ask him what the Magi brought. For a while he couldn’t name the gold on the list since he didn’t get to experience it. But like basically all of us, he now thinks gold is wonderful — even if the main kind he craves is some brick gold for his Lego pirates.
I also burned some frankincense and myrrh when I preached at a church. The congregants quietly walked to the stations to smell the smokes in the two corners of the sanctuary. We prayerfully reflected on the Magi, their gifts, and the King they traveled to worship. Baptist services don’t usually feature incense, but I found it quite holy.
As I stood in that spice souk in the Arabian desert, I again fancied myself as one of those Magi. Perhaps they stopped at a similar market on their long journey to meet the newborn King.
Did they haggle for a good bargain? Did they tell a chatty merchant about their mission? Did they pick up a special snack or drink for the trip?
When they returned home by another way did they go back to the spice market to give an update? Once home did they tell the other Magi about the new King? Did they ever think of trekking back to check on how he was doing? Did they wonder about the plans of that mad king? Did they ever hear any news at all about the King they had traversed afar to see?
Maybe it was the spices getting to me, but the story came alive. And may it for us all this Christmas. Let us allow our imaginations to carry us into that familiar tale. Maybe those shepherds are just over the hills outside of town as I’m driving along the outskirts. Is that a new star up there twinkling, moving?
And maybe if I close my eyes, I’m back in that desert.
A few years after visiting that spice market, I saw biblical sites in Jordan. I spent a night out in the desert in a really nice tent (it was glamorous camping, or glamping). At night I walked away from the lights of camp to enjoy gazing at the stars. Perhaps those magi sat right there looking back up one night to make sure they still followed their star.
And then the next morning I watched a couple camels in the distance carry some men off on a journey. I think they might have been the magi. Because like in my childhood plays, they didn’t say anything.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.