Ah, the holidays! Cookies, pies, pine trees, jingle bells, presents, garlands, mistletoe, nativity scenes, Christmas lights, and caroling! Christmas is usually all of these things. Somehow, they all remind me of home—of all the houses I have called home. I wonder how the people who celebrated the first Christmas would feel if they saw how we celebrate this most Christian holiday.
I particularly wonder how the wise men who came from the East would feel. We all know the story. Three men came from the East to Jerusalem looking for the newborn baby king. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory—this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, ‘Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him’” (Matthew 2:1-2, The Message). I like that this version calls them scholars.
Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar are the names traditionally given to these men; the group is also known as the three kings. You’ll find them in every nativity scene. The Gospel tells us that they came from the East. Jerusalem is in the East, so this means that they were from some place even further east, probably Persia. These sages were probably astronomers, men who studied the skies and its infinite stars. The record says that they had seen a new bright star, what we would probably call a comet. Some traditions indicate that the wise men were later named as bishops by the apostle Thomas and that they worked as missionaries. A legend suggests that they were buried in a common tomb and that their bones were found in A.D. 326 and were taken in 1164 to Cologne Cathedral, where they are venerated as relics.
What I like about this story is that these men were open to new discoveries. They studied the signs in the sky; their minds were open. The Greek word used here is mágos (μάγος). The term magi is used by Josephus and Philo, referring to those Eastern (especially Chaldean) priest-sages whose research, in great measure as yet mysterious and unknown to us, seems to have embraced much deep knowledge. According to some scholars, there was a close connection between the land of Israel and Arabia, and from about 120 B.C. to the sixth century of our era, the kings of Yemen professed the Jewish faith. That could explain how these men would attach a Messianic meaning to the new “star” that they had seen and studied. Perhaps these men didn’t only study their scrolls diligently but were also open to reading the skies. And the skies led them to Jerusalem in search of the Christ Child.
They came to Jerusalem and went directly to the king. No doubt they thought the king of Israel would employ wise men who were also able to read the signs in the sky and understand their message, as they had. Alas, they were disappointed. Herod was not that type of king, and he didn’t have men like them. He wasn’t even that type of Jew. He was more Roman than Jewish, and he couldn’t care less about any signs in the sky.
Modern history has cases of individuals who went beyond what could clearly be seen. They saw the signs and made a difference in the world.
In a 1943 lecture, Nobel prizewinning theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger suggested that genes contained some kind of code—what we now know as DNA. His concept was revolutionary, and his topic was an unusual one for a physicist: "What is Life?” The following year the lectures were turned into a book of the same name. DNA has become very important. It helps the police solve crimes. It helps investigators get wrongly condemned people out of jail. It helps people find family. I found a long-lost cousin—she and her family had spent World War II in a Japanese concentration camp and had moved to Canada after being liberated. Finding each other through our DNA was a major cause of celebration in my family.
Marie Stodowska Curie was intrigued by the discovery made by physicist Henri Bequerel that uranium salts naturally emit x-rays. She continued working until she discovered radium, which, with its alluring greenish glow, became famous and rather notorious. It’s the element used in an array of applications, such as the illumination of watch faces and as a multi-purpose therapeutic weapon against acne, varicose veins, and epilepsy, among other uses. During World War I, disturbed by the quality of the medical care received by the soldiers, Curie invented and resourced a fleet of radiology vehicles to carry x-ray technology to the front lines. We have x-rays, a name we are so familiar with, all because of her curiosity.
Heinrich Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves, including radio waves, in the 1880s. His discovery was based on the theoretical connection between electricity and magnetism that was beginning to be developed. Oliver Lodge and Jagadish Bose explored the property of those waves and even developed devices and methods to improve the transmission and detection of those waves. But neither Hertz nor Lodge nor Bose saw any practical value in these discoveries. Enter Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi. At the age of 20, Marconi began to put together a device in the attic of his home. He had studied Hertz’s theory and the devices of Lodge and Bose, and he decided that there was more to it, much more. In 1894, Marconi demonstrated to his mother a radio transmitter and receiver—a simple set-up that made a bell ring after receiving a signal from another room. By the summer of 1895 Marconi perfected his device, and a new era of communication had begun.
We are familiar with GPS, antilock brakes, automatic transmissions, hybrid cars—and they all can be traced to Karl Friedrich Benz. (Yes, the Benz in what we now know as Mercedes Benz.) Karl began toying with the idea of applying the technology used in factories. The industrial revolution had produced the power needed to revolutionize textile, lumber, metallurgy, and even ship production. Could there be a way to apply that power to a cart? However, the factories were run by steam, and Karl needed something much smaller. Nikolaus Otto had invented a piston engine that Karl developed into a two-stroke engine. He then proceeded to design a three-wheeled vehicle with a four-stroke engine to power it. At the time other inventors were also trying to come up with a “horseless carriage,” but Karl’s work stood out because his car was constructed around its engine—he did not just add an engine to a carriage. He patented his car on Jan. 29, 1886. His inventions were the product of considering what there was and what it could become.
DNA, x-rays, radio, automobiles, and the list goes on and on.
As we celebrate the holidays, as we celebrate the most holy of the Christian holidays, as we celebrate the birth of our Lord, are our minds open to read the signs? What is it that God is telling you? When you take time to contemplate the miracle of the Baby in the manger and the greatest manifestation of God’s love on the cross, are you open to perceive God’s message for you? Are you willing to allow your mind to be open to the message God has for you in the quietude, the stillness of your soul?
Elijah had been running for his life. First he had faced the priests of Baal, then he had escaped to the desert, and finally he ended up at Mount Horeb. God took care of Elijah while he hid in a cave. Then Elijah was able to experience something that only Moses had experienced before: the Lord decided to show him His glory.
“A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV). Elijah experienced a powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire—but the Lord wasn’t in any of those phenomena.
A literal translation of verse 12 reads, “after a fire came the sound of silence” (EXV). Another version translates it as “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). That’s where God was. In the gentle whisper, in the sound of silence, in the majesty of sheer silence. Do you want to find God’s message for you during this holiday season? Abide in the sound of silence. Dwell in the sheer silence. And allow the Lord to talk to you. Listen for the gentle whisper.
I’m not saying, “Stop the caroling, don’t exchange presents, put away the pecan pie, you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life too many times already!” No, all I’m suggesting is that you allow God to talk to you during this blessed season, that you don’t block out the quietness and silence. I’m suggesting that you look for the message He has for you during the holidays. I’m inviting you to be wise (a magi), to explore that message that perhaps only makes sense to you.
I invite you to open your mind during this holiday season. I invite you to surround yourself with the presence of the Lord. I invite you to read the signs around you. I invite you to bask in the sound of silence.
Alberto Valenzuela is the associate director for communication and community engagement of the Pacific Union Conference.