Following the star

William Covington | 12/19/2012, 5 p.m.

One of the more memorable images in the Bible is that of the journey made by the wise men to Bethlehem. When portrayed in school Christmas plays, this scene usually signals the play's finale. Young males who were cast as the wise men would walk majestically toward the manger as the choir sang "We Three Kings of Orient Are," and if the school production was performed in the inner city, the little girl playing the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, might have held an African American baby doll in a blanket wrapped well enough to hide the doll's long hair because male baby dolls were not produced.

Like most religious plays at public schools, the nativity scene has become a victim of "separation of church and state" in many school districts.

The "three kings," or "wise men" and the star of Bethlehem they followed are still celebrated in Christmas carols, on greeting cards, and in front-yard light displays, but have been virtually excluded from much of public life.

From a just few lines in the book of Matthew, the story and veneration of the three wise men grew over the centuries.

Matthew calls the three travelers "wise men," or magi and says they came from the east, having seen a star. After resuming their search and having been questioned by King Herod, "the star which they had seen in the east went before them till it came to rest over the place where the child was."

Having located the infant Jesus and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the wise men departed, returning home by another route in order to avoid King Herod, who had intentions of killing the child, Jesus.

Beyond that, there is little else known about the Magi. In Matthew, we aren't told their names, how many there were, or even if they were all men. Some theologians claim they were not even kings.

The Bible says the magi followed the star to Judea in search of the King of the Jews; today the wise men are familiar to us as three kings who crossed the desert by camel bearing gifts for the Son of God. Down through the centuries the magi have changed according to the preconceptions of the day.

There is a strong possibility we don't know what they looked like. Religious renderings have depicted the wise men in different ways, depending on what was happening culturally at the time. They have been rendered as having three different pigmentations, as coming from different parts of the globe and as being of various ages--young, middle-aged and old.

Professor Stanley Jones, Ph.D., of the department of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach, believes one of the earliest known paintings of the magi is located in the Roman catacombs. It was painted around the time of Christ's crucifixion.

He describes the fresco depicting the three men as one being White, one darker and yellowish and one being Black. Thus, he believes this painting validates the legend of the magi as coming from different parts of the globe had already taken root during the time of Jesus.