In 2017 my goal is to post short fiction every Wednesday. Some will be older stories or fragments and others will be newly written. This week's effort a new story and fitting for the last days of the Christmas season. The Three Wise Men didn't just bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Messiah, they delivered a powerful message to Joseph.
As unusual as the situation already was, the unexpected arrival of the three kings of distant lands made Joseph more uncomfortable still, if such were even possible.
The shepherds had already been visiting at the manger for several days. They had been more or less polite and gracious; taking turns singularly or in pairs, to view the newborn Messiah where He lay in the manger and doing their best not to disturb Mary, who was excited by the birth but remained too exhausted for the young couple to leave their simple lodgings just yet. Joseph had done nothing to dissuade the visitors, for they had come at the behest of an Angel of the Lord.
There had been a lot of that sort of thing in his life lately, and he expected he had better get used to it.
The infant was clearly something special. Joseph wasn't versed in the concept of a halo, but he'd seen the Angel of the Lord in a dream, and now knew divine light when he saw it. One couldn't say that the child actually shed light as a lighted lamp would, yet there was an undeniable brightness to him, and serenity that made Joseph feel better about everything just by observing the newborn.
The shepherds clearly appreciated the specialness of the child, yet while two were kneeling before the infant, a third burst in and crossed the manger in a rush to Joseph's side.
"Kings!" he whispered. "Kings from distant lands have arrived! They come on camels, and bring precious gifts!"
Joseph's first thought was of Herod, whose wrath the Angel had warned him of, but then the Shepherd explained that the newcomers wore the garb of Persia and Ethiopia, and the third that of the even more distant Orient.
Mary saw the concern on Joseph's face, and he felt the duty of protecting his wife and child fall full upon him, but then the child smiled at him, and a tremendous upwelling of faith calmed his heart. Joseph exhaled and remembered that so little of this was up to him. And besides, the Kings had already entered without invitation, as kings will.
Being kings, they were splendidly attired, and Joseph saw that they presented themselves without attendants, and equally surprisingly, with belts free of swords or knives, lacking even ceremonial or decorative weapons. Joseph and the shepherds at once fell in supplication, but one of the kings-- a tall, dark-skinned regent of some distant kingdom-- kindly bade them stand. Joseph and the shepherds rose uncertainly. The Christ-Child smiled in his mother's arms, and his beatific expression remained unchanged when turned upon his royal visitors.
Mary, for her part, was too full of bliss to be intimidated by their raiment or bearing. The Kings were gracious, were humble, were genteel. However, Joseph could not put aside their station above him. Yes, the Angel of the Lord had come to him, and yes, he had been appointed by the God of Abraham himself as steward to the Messiah, but even if the presence of the Christ Child, the weight of the king's authority was nearly stifling. In their garb, in their manner, in their speech, they were just so different.
The three kings presented their gifts and paid their respects. Then, after a moment of respectful observance, the Persian King said it would only be right to leave Mary to rest and to allow the other faithful to observe the Messiah. They bowed with grace and turned to leave through the side door of the manger. As the three kings passed Joseph, the Ethiopian king whispered “Please, sir, if we may. A quick word away from the young mother.”
Not wishing to leave his young wife alone, yet too cowed by their high aspect to refuse, Joseph reluctantly acquiesced. He shared a swift look with Mary, then another with a shepherd, who nodded as if to say 'I will protect her and the child,' and the gesture warmed Joseph's heart. He had absolute faith, but it was being tested at every moment.
They emerged into a narrow alley between the manger and the inn. Joseph could see either street was filled with shepherds and other common folk who had heard of the virgin birth; the other with camels, horses, and followers of the kings--more, Joseph thought, than even three kings would need.
"There are twelve of us," the Oriental King explained. "Twelve kings and magi who understood the meaning of the portents. Who knew," he said pointing up with one ring-laden finger towards the unusually bright star that shone over Bethlehem, "the significance of the star."
As he spoke, servants, each wearing finer clothes than Joseph, rushed down the alley and provided brocade-covered stools for the three kings and one for Joseph. The kings sat, and when Joseph remained standing, the Ethiopian King gestured, and Joseph took a seat.
"We mean to speak with the utmost respect," the Persian king said. "We want to share our wisdom with you, and what we are to share, we share with respect."
"To you, and your wife, and Jehovah." And all three bowed their heads in deference.
"Glory be to the God of Abraham," Joseph said, unable to think of any other appropriate reply.
"This blessed event was made known to you," the Persian continued. "By a prophet? A vision?"
"An Angel of the Lord spoke to me," Joseph replied. "To my wife as well."
The three kings stroked their beards and looked to one another.
"Was anything said of the child's gospel?"
"She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins," Joseph said. "He will teach the world the ways of peace."
The kinds nodded again.
"Joseph, we know the child isn't yours in a literal sense,” the Ethiopian began. “But it's clear you want to do the best you can for him," Then the three kings began speaking in a circular fashion, one and then the next, with hardly a pause in their declamations:
"You desire to protect your divine son, and your young wife," the Oriental King said.
"Yes. And to provide for the both of them," added the Persian.
"In a manner befitting his station."
"And your own position, as his parents,” concluded the Ethiopian. “It's no small honor, what you have been asked to do,"
"Thank…you?" Joseph stammered.
The kings were accustomed to being thanked, and they nodded in unison.
"This is why we have made a gift of gold," the Persian said. "So you may see to the child's well-being."
"Again, we thank you," Joseph said.
“There could be more," the Oriental said. "Much more."
"More gold?" Joseph said, not sure where all of this was going.
The Ethiopian saw the new father’s concern and made to calm him. “Worry not. We understand the troubles too much wealth can bring.”
“Taxes, thieves, the transport of such treasure.”
"You'd not have to worry about the keeping of it.”
“We'd see to it. In fact, we'd see to all your comforts,” the Persian said. “You could even come live among us.”
“If that would be agreeable to you."
“We'd do nothing without your express consent,” said the Oriental with a soothing smile.
"Yes, and to wait upon the wishes of a man such as yourself is not a simple matter for us, as we are kings, and you but a mere tradesman."
“But it is a courtesy we extend willingly.”
“Humbly,” the Persian concluded.
And once more the three kings nodded as one.
"You mean Mary, Jesus and I should… come live with you?"
"One of us," the Persian said. "You'd have your choice."
"And not just of we three," the Oriental said. There are twelve of us, remember.”
"Twelve kings?" Joseph asked.
"Kings and magi, yes." the Persian said.
“The balance of our number wait at the border.”
“We do not wish to appear as overwhelming."
"And then there is Herod, who might…"
The three nodded solemnly.
"We're not at all like Herod," the Ethiopian said. "We don't fear the Messiah."
The Persian put a hand on Joseph’s knee. "We respect your son," he said.
"And we understand that it is foolish to try and directly contest the will of Jehovah."
"One must be respectful of Jehovah above all else," the Ethiopian said. "Look at what became of Ramses."
"Yes, plagues and floods and death and he lost all of his slaves."
“An entire race!" the Persian said. "All gone simply because he wouldn't make accommodations."
"And that is all that we offer," The Persian said, bringing it all around again. "We wish to provide accommodations."
"You will want for nothing," the Oriental said.
"And be far from Herod."
"Would you accept our generosity?" The Persian asked.
Joseph was so taken aback by their manner and topic of conversation he had nearly forgotten the question. "I don't… I'm not sure. Leave Galilee?"
"And live in a palace, yes." the Oriental said.
"Any of our palaces.”
“You’d have your choice.”
"My palace has an oasis," the Ethiopian said. "And is near a river. Clear water, many trees. It's lovely, actually."
Joseph had no idea how he should answer. He wondered, and not for the first time, if one day Jesus, blessed with the perfect wisdom of the Holy Spirit, would council him on such dilemmas. But of course, the Messiah was only hours old, and while Joseph wasn't sure what to expect from the miraculous infant in the manager, he didn't believe he could go in and ask Jesus what he should do now.
Yet as he turned his mind to the question, he realized that he knew the answer. Ever since the Angel had come to him, he had been in tune with his faith, and the three kings did not bring with them the feeling of the Lord. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I am grateful," Joseph said. "Yet I feel the Lord wishes for us to stay in Galilee."
With this, a deep hush fell between them.
The three kings did not gesture or speak, nor even turn towards one another, yet Joseph had the strong impression that they were somehow discussing next steps.
The Ethiopian spoke to fill the growing silence. "Are you certain you can dismiss such an offer? How will you provide for your son?”
“The Lord will provide?” Joseph replied. To his shame, the words emerged without conviction, almost as a question.
“Will he?” The Persian asked
“Your newborn son lays abed in a manger, surrounded by… by… livestock,” the Ethiopian said.
“An inauspicious beginning, some might say,” agreed the Oriental.
"I have faith,” Joseph replied, although he could not deny the peculiarity of his family’s circumstances. “The Lord will see to our needs and raise His Son up,” Joseph said. “He will bring hope to the poor and offer salvation to the wicked." He actually didn't know the Lord's plans, no mortal could, but the words felt right to say, and Joseph took that as a good sign.
"Sadly, that may not work for us," the Persian said.
"I beg your pardon?" Joseph asked.
"Absolutely will not." The Oriental said.
The Ethiopian stood and smoothed his kingly robes. "We have offered you a life of ease in one of our palaces; one where your wife and son do not need to be subject to the trials of poverty and the rules of tyrants such as Herod, and whoever will come after him."
"And you have declined," said the Oriental.
“Now let us tell you what comes next," continued the Persian.
"Attacks from all sides."
"And none of it a thing you can defend against."
"We, and all like us, will endeavor to subvert the covenant of the God of Abraham, and the message of his Son."
"We will make sure that none will trust your Son’s intent, and fewer believe His word."
"He shall speak to thousands, and we will twist His words. He may perform miracles, but we will discredit them."
“Simply, with words of our own.”
"No swords, so soldiers, no brute force."
"Not until the end."
"And we promise that your child’s life of poverty and struggle ends with his death at a young age, at the hands of noble officials who will not break a single law to execute him."
"And his public death at the order of some governor or prince will be met by cheering crowds," The Oriental said with an almost melancholy finality.
"You cannot know all of this--" Joseph protested.
"It has already begun!” the Persian shouted, moving closer until his face was inches to Joseph’s own. “Yes, we have come here to cajole and even threaten you, but as we have acted with discretion and grace, our visit to the Messiah will be celebrated!"
"The shepherds already say, ‘Look at the kings who know to bring beautiful gifts to the Son of God!’"
“Why would you do these things?” Joseph half-wailed in despair.
The Ethiopian put out a calming hand. "Joseph, you have to understand. We are magi, but do not forget we are also kings."
"As kings we need subjects. Not just the merchants and the traders but also the poor."
"People like yourself and your wife," the Persian explained. “Who are the foundation of any kingdom.”
"Serfs. Servants. Laborers. People to work the land and to give the fruit of the land to us.
“Via taxes, tithing, rent whatever one wishes to call it."
"And let us not forget the cost of war and defense.”
“Yes, we need men and boys to serve in our armies and women and girls to bear the next generation of soldiers."
"These are all common requirements of a kingdom."
"And for the world we describe to function, the subjects of a kingdom must answer to their king, not Jehovah."
Joseph was confused. “You would dare meddle with the plans of the God of Abraham?”
“Not meddle. Oppose.”
"Opposition is necessary and desirable.”
“What the God of Abraham most desires from his people is willing fealty ."
"It is important to Him that his followers have a choice."
"Adam and Eve in the garden," The Persian said.
"And we respect that."
"You see, Joseph, we are that choice."
“It is how we serve Him.”
"And we will endeavor to make our choice an attractive one."
“He wants you, personally, to make a choice, Joseph, and he wants it to be a meaningful one.” The Oriental said.
“And therefore you and your family will suffer, as all of His prophets have suffered.”
“Job,” this last name nearly spat out by the Oriental, who nevertheless bowed respectfully before turning his back and leaving the small group. A servant walked after him, brocade-covered couch in hand.
“Your mind will turn back upon on this day often,” the Ethiopian said. “In some other stable or manger or mean home, when your son is hungry or when your king is cruel, you will think upon what you passed over in this moment, and you will regret.” Then he bowed and took his leave as well.
That left only the Persian, who clearly felt he had said all that he had come to say, save one parting barb: “He could stop us,” the King said. “He has punished the world before, with a great flood. He could do so again with fire or plague or any bolt from His celestial quiver. Instead, He contends with us with words. We have all the words He has, and ten thousand mouths to speak them.” Then at last he bowed and joined his companions on the road. Faintly, Joseph heard the order given to make the company ready to depart.
Joseph returned to the presence of his wife and perfect child. He was shaken by his encounter with the magi and their words echoed in his mind, as strong, perhaps, as those of the Angel who had first borne tidings of the miracle birth unto him.
“Is all well?” the shepherd asked. Joseph saw that the man’s face had fallen to despair. He quickly realized that the man was no more than reflecting his own expression back.
“Yes,” Joseph said. “I am just feeling the sleepless nights. It’s not always restful, in a manger, I mean.”
“I know the truth of that!” the shepherd agreed. “Please, sir, have a seat and take your ease.” He gestured at a floor before the infant, where Joseph was surprised to see a small boy stood. He was wearing a drum. “This boy has followed the star,” the shepherd said. “He wished to play for the child. Sit, and listen. May it ease your burden.”
“Thank you,” Joseph said as he sat upon the manager floor. The boy began tapping upon his drum, a smattering of notes repeated in a slow circle.
The Shepherd, Mary, and even the animals of the manager all turned to watch the boy play. Jesus smiled at the sound of it, his small face bright with joy.
Joseph was relieved the drummer had caught their attention, for none could see him weep.