The inspiration for the drama that follows came 25 years ago, when a woman slapped a perfect stranger in the face in a convenience store one day in Detroit. Becky and I and our daughters were living in that area then, when American soldiers were being sent to the Persian Gulf in advance of the First Gulf War, to take Kuwait back from the Iraqi army. When the poor, surprised man asked the unknown woman why she had slapped him, she said, “This is America, where we talk English, so if you’re going to come live here and enjoy our freedom, then stop talking Arab, the language of our enemies, like Saddam Hussein, and learn English.” In crisp, clear, Upper Midwest Great Lakes Rust Belt English, the man told her that he was American, born in the country like she was, and that the language he was speaking with his brother was not Arabic but Syriac. He had learned it from his parents, who were quite proud to have emigrated here and become American citizens too. Furthermore, he was not Arab but Chaldean. Though from Iraq, yes, the Chaldeans were Abraham and Sarah’s people. Nor are they Muslim, they are Christian, of the ancient Assyrian Orthodox Church. He and other identifiably Middle Eastern people were getting pretty rude treatment in that time of anti-Arab hysteria, which prompted the leaders of his Chaldean church and community to hold some public information meetings, to introduce themselves to the wider community and to educate us on the difficulties and the complexities of their lives, lived between two countries at war with each other. I went to one of those meetings and this is what I heard: The story of the Chaldean Christians begins with the journey of the magi to see the Christ child. Magi were the trained and ordained sorcerers, astrologers and seers of the official state religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism. They came back from that journey and told the scholars and leaders of the large Jewish community in Persia that they had seen their promised Messiah. Which surprised those Jewish leaders in Baghdad, because no one had told them anything about the Messiah coming, however often they prayed for it. That news sat like a hanging question mark until a generation later, when a missionary disciple of the Apostle Thomas, by the name of Addai, came to tell his fellow Jews in the Persian Empire about Jesus. Those Persian Jews who believed him became the nucleus of the Assyrian Orthodox Church. At one point in time, their church was probably the most wide-spread church geographically, with missionaries, monasteries and churches in India, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics, until the Mongols swept everything up from the east, and the Muslims from the west. At this public information meeting, the Chaldean community representatives told us that their language of Syriac is just a hair’s breadth of a dialect away from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. Then they recited the Lord’s Prayer, the way it sounded in Jesus’ voice. That sent chills up my spine. About Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War, they said that no great love was lost between him and them, except that, unlike most previous dictators and despots ruling Iraq, Saddam did not persecute them for their religion. He was an equal opportunity persecutor who frightened and killed everybody equally, regardless of religion. While, yes, there were Chaldeans serving in Saddam’s army, there were at least as many in American uniform, or in other Middle Eastern armies allied against Saddam. Listening to their story, it struck me at how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The ancient Persian Empire, from which the magi came, was Rome’s archenemy. Twenty centuries later, we in the West were still anxious and afraid of “the beast to the east,” a dark, despotic force the other side of Israel with imperial designs and a cruel cult of emperor worship. But like our Chaldean neighbors today, the magi in Matthew, chapter 2, came from that same distant desert region at the source of our fears, but as friends on a pilgrimage of peace. Unarmed, and seeking peace, they crossed a tense border between two hostile military empires, with an offer of peace that still stands today. We call this story, and this celebration, of the magi’s coming to the Christ child, “the Epiphany.” That’s a Greek word, similar to “Apocalypse,” meaning, “revealing,” in this case, the first revealing of the Hebrew Messiah to the Gentile nations, as promised by the prophets. Because this “Epiphany” involved a crossing of hostile borders and a war zone between two rival empires, it was also an “Epiphany,” or “revealing,” of God’s Shalom, the peace that God is working to establish worldwide, among Jews and Gentiles, and between warring tribes and nations. The church of the magi today is endangered by Islamic militancy, with most of its members either internally displaced, or fleeing to places like Belgium or joining family in cities like Detroit or Los Angeles. But another chapter of this Epiphany story is being written even now as Chinese and Korean Christian missionaries are planting new churches westward, into Central Asia and beyond, with the vision of creating a belt of Christ-centered peace-making communities all the way to Jerusalem. All that I hope we communicate in the dramatization of what might conceivably have happened as the magi worked their way West toward the Christ child, the Prince of Peace, across a tense and fortified border. I hope it stimulates our desire for the peace of God, even as I hope it strengthens our commitment to the God of peace.
Narrator: Somewhere along the heavily militarized Eastern border of the Roman Empire, in the year 4 BC, a small, westward-heading caravan approaches a checkpoint at a Roman fortress, in what is now the modern-day country of Jordan. This is where the mighty Roman and Persian empires meet, usually in an uneasy, tentative truce, but sometimes in open warfare. The recent pause in fighting has allowed some commerce to go both ways across the fortified border. But the general suspicion of contraband and espionage makes for lengthy and detailed inspections on both sides. On this particular day, one Persian subject in the aforementioned caravan says to his two traveling companions:
Melchior: It took all day to get through our own checkpoint. How long do you think this next one will take, Caspar?
Caspar: No telling with the Romans. They’re usually pretty thorough, I’m told.
Belshazzar: I’d say. The line ahead of us is barely moving.
Melchior: What do we do if we don’t make it through before nightfall, Belshazzar? Its getting colder with the sun starting to set.
Caspar: And I was counting on lodging on the other side of the border tonight, but at this rate….?
Belshazzar: If worse comes to worst, Melchior, we’ll just camp out in no-man’s land, like the travelers behind us are preparing to do.
Melchior: I’m used to camping out, but not in a battle zone. What if war breaks out while we’re here?
Caspar: I’ll raise my white handkerchief and surrender to whichever soldier shows up first.
Belshazzar: Do you have enough handkerchiefs for all of us, Caspar?
Caspar: You know me. “Courage” is not my middle name.
Belshazzar: Quick, Caspar! Get your handkerchiefs out now. Soldiers approaching, and not our own. They’re Roman!
Melchior: I don’t like the looks of the commanding officer. He looks as hard as nails. And he’s looking right at us. Get ready to go back home, if we’re lucky.
Caspar: I don’t like the look of that skinny, weasely-looking guy with him any better. I’d better wave my handkerchief now.
Romulus: Sergeant Severus, do these men look like the travelers your agents told you about?
Severus: Yes, Captain Romulus. Three Persians, their servants and an extra camel bearing cargo.
Romulus: And they’re ready to surrender, I see, before anyone has even shot off an arrow.
Caspar: Melchior, you know Latin. What’s he saying?
Melchior: He’s saying that they’ve been waiting for us. And Caspar, you can stop waving the handkerchief. We’re not under attack.
Caspar: What a relief!
Romulus: Gentlemen, state your business here.
Belshazzar: Oh good, he speaks Aramaic.
Melchior: We’re on a pilgrimage, sir.
Romulus: A pilgrimage? What kind of pilgrimage?
Caspar: A religious one, you might say.
Severus: I wouldn’t believe them, Sir. They seem to be Zoroastrian priests, astrologers and soothsayers, “magi,” they’re called. But there are no shrines or temples of theirs west of here.
Melchior: Sir, I understand Latin, so I know what your aide is saying, and I understand your hesitation.
We are Zoroastrian priests, but we’re not on a Zoroastrian pilgrimage.
Romulus: What kind of pilgrimage are you on, then?
Melchior: A Jewish one.
Severus: Don’t believe him, Sir. I doubt they even know anything about Judaism.
Melchior: Once again, Sir, let me explain. Where I come from, we have a very big Jewish community. And its full of wonderful scholars whom we love to talk with. Sometimes we argue and debate, but mostly we find them quite wise and engaging. So that’s why we’re on a Jewish pilgrimage.
Severus: I still don’t believe them, sir. There’s no high Jewish holy day now or any time soon. They’re way too late for the Feast of Tabernacles, and way too early for Passover.
Belshazzar: Melchior, it looks like the officer’s aide doesn’t want to let us through, no matter what we say.
Melchior: You can tell that without even understanding Latin?
Caspar: Just the suspicious look on his face tells me everything I need to know.
Romulus: My intelligence and reconnaissance officer here just said that there’s no Jewish holiday any time soon. So, what kind of Jewish pilgrimage are you on?
Belshazzar: We’re going to see the King of the Jews, sir.
Romulus: “The King of the Jews,” eh? Since when did King Herod suddenly become so popular in Persia? Hardly anyone likes him in Judea!
Caspar: Oh, he’s not the king we’re coming to see.
Melchior: Uh, Caspar, watch what you’re saying.
Severus: They’re definitely trying to keep something secret, Sir.
Romulus: So, you don’t want to see King Herod. That leaves only Caesar Augustus, and he’s way off in Rome. Are you on some sort of peace mission to him?
Caspar: You could say so, yes.
Romulus: (laughing) Ha! So you’re going all the way to Rome, on camels, to make peace between the world’s biggest, baddest, warring empires? Just the three of you?
Belshazzar: No, not to Rome, sir.
Melchior: Oh, dear. This is looking worse for us by the minute.
Severus: They’re getting even more secretive, Sir.
Romulus: So, where is this “King of the Jews?” And who is he, if he’s not Herod or Caesar Augustus?
Caspar: Uhhhhh…..We don’t exactly know, sir.
Romulus: You don’t know. You mean, you don’t know who he is, or you don’t know where he is?
Belshazzar: Yes, that is, on both accounts, Sir.
Romulus: Then, if you don’t know where you’re going, or who you’re gonna see, why did you come all the way to this God-forsaken spot, of all places?
Belshazzar: We’re following a star. The big new one we’ve been seeing in the night sky. It led us here.
Romulus: Sergeant, I’m starting to think that these poor fools are more of a threat to themselves than to us.
Severus: But don’t forget, sir, that they’re looking for another king of the Jews besides Herod or Caesar. So are the Jews in Judea and Galilee. We’ve always been afraid that our Jewish subjects would be more loyal to the Jews in Persia than to us. Something might be up between them and their friends to the east. Maybe these guys are their message-bearers. Maybe they’re only dressed up to look like Zoroastrian priests.
Romulus: Good point, Severus. I think I know how to get to the bottom of this. Gentlemen, just what are you bringing in those saddlebags for this “King of the Jews?”
Melchior: Glad you asked, sir. Here’s our customs list, already inspected, signed and stamped on the Persian side by our officials.
Romulus: I don’t read Pharsee, Sergeant Severus. Do you?
Severus: Sure. It says, “Gold, Frankincense and myrrh.” The last two are typical items of commerce from the east, but not the first. The gold might be to pay spies, rebels and provocateurs.
Romulus: Gentlemen, my aide here thinks that the gold you’re bringing is to pay anti-Roman spies, rebels and provo—probiscus—promo-
Romulus: Whatever. Trouble makers.
Caspar: If we were paying spies and rebels and whatever, would we bring the money through an officially designated Roman checkpoint, right under your nose, with documentation from our own government?
Romulus: Good point. What do you say to that, Severus?
Severus: Then ask them what the gold is for, if not for spies and provoca—TEURS!
Romulus: Then what is the gold for, if not for spies and provoca—TEURS?
Melchior: Its tribute for the King of the Jews, along with the frankincense and myrrh. But this king is no armed rebel warrior, nor a guerrilla leader, if that’s what you’re worried about.
Romulus: If this “King of the Jews” is not Herod, Augustus Caesar nor an armed rebel leader, then what kind of king does that leave? You’re not making any sense to me.
Melchor: Uh….uh, its kind of hard to explain.
Caspar: Melchior, tell them what the rabbi read us, from the scrolls.
Melchior: Got it. Its all in their scrolls, sir, like the one that says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Romulus: So he’ll be a peaceful king.
Belshazzar: That’s right.
Romulus: Doesn’t sound like any king I’ve ever heard of. You’re still talking gibberish.
Caspar: Tell them about the rest of the prophecy, Melchior.
Melchior: It goes on to say, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”
Severus: Sir, I’m starting to think they’re crazy, too. But I’m not sure yet that they’re harmless.
Romulus: Peace, you say? I haven’t known peace since I left home for the Legion. Even before then,
while I was a kid, they drilled it into my head: “Our empire must ever expand or die.”
Belshazzar: We have the same saying in Pharsee!
Romulus: So, I grew up thinking peace was only for losers, just before they lost everything to someone stronger. Still, sometimes I wouldn’t mind a moment’s peace now and then, instead of always living on the edge like I do now. (Pause—Sigh) But war is what they pay me for. And war is all I know.
Melchius: I’m getting weary of it all, too. Especially since I lost a son and two brothers in the wars between our empires.
Belshazzar: Now I’m starting to cry, just thinking about the brother that I lost.
Severus: Captain, are you all right, Sir? Are you starting to cry too?
Romulus: (wiping his eyes, choking) I’m thinking of my lost comrades! And my cousin……. Hey, everybody, stop lookin’ at me!
Caspar: Here’s a handkerchief, sir. (hands Romulus his handkerchief)
Romulus: Thank you (puts handkerchief to his nose, makes honking noise). What else do the scrolls say about this “Prince of Peace?”
Melchior: It also says somewhere, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
Caspar: We think, Officer, that the little child it talks about, who will lead us, is the King of the Jews. He should have been born recently, if we have correctly understood the meaning of the star.
Romulus: (wiping his eyes some more and honking into the handkerchief) Go on! I wanna hear more.
Severus: Sir, don’t you see what they’re trying to do? They’re undermining our morale!
Melchior: Then it goes on to say, “The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Romulus: (voice still quavering) So, with this promised “Prince of Peace” in charge, my little son back home in Sicily won’t have to grow up in fear and become an Army grunt like me? Or is this Prince of Peace only for the Jews? (blows his nose into the handkerchief again)
Caspar: Oh, no, sir.
Belshazzar: Of course not. Why would we come all this way if he were?
Melchior: For the scroll also says that he, “will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”
Romulus: Rest! That’s what I want. Rest from fear and fighting. Rest from bloodshed and seeing men die like flies. Rest from wondering and worrying if my son will be fatherless and my wife a widow. You know what else I want? You know what would be “rest” to me?
Caspar: No sir. What?
Romulus: Once, just once, I’d like to sit down to a friendly meal with a Persian and not worry if he was going to kill me or if I should kill him. I’d like to hear about how he grew up, who his people are, and tell him all about mine. Then we’d roll dice and play games, then bid each other goodbye with a brotherly hug, and go home to our families and tell them all about it. Then we might even visit each other some day!
Severus: Sir! Don’t you realize what kind of treason you’re talking?
Romulus: Oh, stuff it, Severus! Or do you want to do guard duty all night, alone, and in the cold?
Severus: Yes, sir. I mean, No sir. Not to the guard duty, I mean.
Romulus: Here, hand me that tablet you’re carrying, Sergeant, with the papyrus and the quill. I’m writing you guys out a special permit to pass the frontier. This should get you through all the checkpoints between here and Jerusalem, but on one condition.
Melchior: What’s that, sir?
Romulus: That you join me for dinner tonight and do like I said: tell me all about your lives and families in Persia, and I’ll tell you all about mine. Then we’ll play Parcheesi! Till midnight!
Belshazzar: What do you think, guys?
Caspar: I’d love to! Oh! And I get green!
Melchior: I’m in! And I’m red.
Romulus: Then you can sleep in my quarters tonight. It’s got a fire going all night to keep us warm.
Belshazzar: Inside your fortress?
Romulus: Yes, inside, where you’ll be safer. And warm.
Belshazzar, Caspar, Melchior: YAY!! WOO-HOO!!
Severus: Good idea, Captain. That will provide us great intelligence, and more time to figure out what they’re really up to.
Romulus: And you, Sergeant Severus, will tell me tomorrow morning just what kind of intelligence you got out here in the desert, by yourself, in the cold, on guard duty all night long.
Severus: Uh…yes, Sir.
Belshazzar: And tell us in the morning where you last saw the star, the big new one that we’re following.
Severus: No trouble there. I’m sure it will be a clear……cold…….. night…all…night….long.
Romulus: Not for us, it won’t.