The Magi Got Me Into Trouble

I photographed these magi on the mantlepiece in a friend’s home

The Magi once got me into trouble. I was asked to include a lesson about them in a Sunday School curriculum I was hired to write for a Mennonite publishing house.  My rendering of the Magi narrative was definitely Biblical but strayed from the traditional way the story has been relayed on Christmas cards, in famous paintings and in children’s Christmas books.   My version of the Magi visit caused a surprisingly passionate response from some of the people who used my lesson. 

I did my research and found that contrary to the way the story is depicted in traditional nativity scenes at Christmas the Magi did not see Jesus as an infant but as a toddler, living not in a stable but in a house with his parents. 

I took a photo of this more traditional depiction of the Magi on the Sagrada Familia in Madrid

The famous visitors weren’t wealthy royal kings but ordinary astrologers. Early Christian writings say there were four of them and St. Augustine said there were twelve. A pope in the year 400 decreed their number to be three.

One year I photographed these Magi on camels who adorn the rooftop of an office building in Winnipeg, Manitoba every Christmas

Some translations of the Bible don’t mention ‘men’, they just say astrologers. Could some have been women? Did they ride on camels? We have no idea. The Bible makes no mention of camels.

I asked Denny Bond the artist illustrating the curriculum I wrote to draw a half-dozen Magi, not in royal robes, but in ordinary clothes, perhaps a little dusty and dirty from travel. I suggested he make a couple of the Magi women and make the Magi different ages and from different races. I requested Jesus be a two-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap. Denny created this watercolour rendition of the Magi Visit and I loved it!

The Magi Visit from the Jubilee Sunday School Curriculum – illustration by artist Denny Bond

I wanted to make the Magi story inclusive and inviting, demonstrating that all kinds of people from different backgrounds and races and genders and classes of society had been invited into Mary and Joseph’s circle to get to know Jesus.  

I had read Richard Gardner’s commentary on the book of Matthew and he said modern-day versions of the Magi might be human rights activists, new-age mystics or ardent feminists. Gentile astrologers would have been considered outsiders in Jewish religious circles two thousand years ago, so it is interesting the Matthew account includes them. 

After hundreds of copies of my curriculum had been sold my editor informed me she was receiving phone calls questioning my interpretation of the Magi visit. Some asked for my Magi story and the accompanying artwork to be withdrawn or changed. My version which strayed from the traditional ideas we had about the Magi proved upsetting to some people. My editor stood by me and the materials I’d written sold for another decade and at one point were translated into Spanish to be marketed outside North America. 

An artistic rendition of the Magi I photographed in Frankfurt Germany

In retrospect, I can understand why some people were troubled by my Magi story. It is never easy to see things in a new way. So much of faith is bound in tradition and that tradition provides stability in a changing world. But if we want a faith that speaks to people in the modern-day we just might have to look at some of our traditional stories in new ways so that they remain realistic and relevant. 

Other posts………..

Finding the Magi Around The World

A Different Kind of Nativity Scene

The Christmas Story at the Sagrada Familia



Filed under Art, Holidays, Religion

2 responses to “The Magi Got Me Into Trouble

  1. Maureen

    MaryLou –
    I was THRILLED to discover Denny Bond’s
    watercolor rendering of the wise men visiting the Christ child. Not only is it beautiful, but an accurate depiction of a toddler – not a newborn – receiving the travelers from afar. I had searched and searched and all other depictions I found were of the newborn babe.
    Holy scripture is clear (Matthew 2:1-18) –
    The wise men “went into the house”
    (Matthew 2:11) – not a stable.
    King Herod, fearing he would be deposed
    when this child became Israel’s ruler, slaughtered all of Bethlehem’s male children two years old and under in a heinous attempt to murder the Christ child, having
    calculated the child’s age based on the information
    given him by the wise men (Matthew 2:16).
    The shepherds in the nearby fields on the morning of Jesus’ birth and these “wise men” are harbingers of the Gospel (Good News) message that is to come. They are the first revelation that eternal salvation will be extended beyond God’s chosen people, the Jews – to Gentiles (non-Jews) as well – TO EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES that Christ is the only way to the Father and in the sufficiency of Jesus’ salvific sacrifice on the cross.
    For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is
    the power of God for salvation to everyone who
    believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
    For in it the righteousness of God is revealed
    from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous
    shall live by faith.”
    Romans 1:16-17
    – Maureen P.

    Romans 1:16-17


  2. Stan Schroeder

    Don’t be afraid, Marylou. I had learned the same many years ago. Trying to put all the important characters into a neat little story or crèche just isn’t realistic.

    Liked by 1 person

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