[When the magi made it back to their homeland, here’s how I imagine the first conversation with the king might have gone.]
So, you have made it home safely,” said the king.
“Yes, Sire. It was a longer journey than we expected, but a journey I would not have missed for my very life,” said one of the king’s counselors.
“Nor I,” said another. “The things we saw! If anything can be called heavenly, that was what we received from our travels west.”
“Truly? You must tell me, then. Did Herod treat you well?”
“Well … I wouldn’t say he mistreated us,” said another wise man.
“What’s this? Surely he must have been pleased that you had come to celebrate the Jews’ blessed event.”
“Sire, as soon as we asked him about the birth of the promised King, Herod seemed confused, even agitated. He called for his own wise men and made them search their sacred writings.”
“Are you telling me the King of Judea knew not of the royal birth?”
“He did not seem to,” said the oldest of the magi, seated to one side of the king. The king allowed this ancient counselor to rest, as his wisdom and friendship were of more value to the king than any of the others. “I could not explain it, but he seemed taken by surprise.”
“Did his counselors not find the answer he sought?”
“They found an answer,” the old one said, “but I do not think it pleased King Herod.” He leaned forward and rested his hands and chin on the head of his short walking staff. “The wise men told us their writings prophesied the promised King would be born in Bethlehem, a small village none of us, even with our knowledge, had ever heard of. And Herod took us aside privately and told us to return to him with a report, saying he wanted to go worship the child himself.”
“So Herod encouraged you in your quest!”
“Not the type of encouragement I am used to,” said the old one. “I have counseled many kings. Herod did not strike me as one who desired counsel, but vengeance.”
“Vengeance? For what?”
“None of us could say, Sire,” said the magus who had spoken first. “But we all felt the same.”
“Did you ever see the child you sought, then?”
“We did,” said one of the younger men. “It was … it was … I don’t know how to describe it except to say that I was standing in the presence of heaven.”
“Like being in Paradise, was it?”
“Not like it, Sire. And not what we’ve been taught about Paradise, but … .” He looked away to the west, as if searching for the star once more.
The old man spoke up. “The Jews speak of Heaven as the dwelling place of the One True God, the Lord of creation who made all things but who himself has no beginning or end.”
“Yes, I’ve heard something of that,” said the king. “And seeing the child made you think of that?”
“Being in the presence of the child made me understand it, young Sire.”
“And so now you understand … .”
“I understand the presence of the Lord more than I understand being in your presence this very moment, Sire.” The old man stood. “I stood in the presence of the Lord of Heaven, the One True God, the Creator of all there is and was and ever will be. I stood in the presence of God himself when I stood in the presence of that child.”
“You are shaking!”
“As did we all, I am not ashamed to say,” said the youngest one.
“We did not stand long,” said another. “First I was on my knees, then my face lay on the ground. When I looked to one side, I saw the others the same.”
“This is very curious,” said the king. “What did King Herod say when you told him all this.”
“We did not,” said the first wise man.
“But he told you to return to him so that he could also worship this child. Why would you not honor his request after he helped you on your way?”
“An angel spoke,” said the elder. “An angel of the Lord spoke and warned us not to return to Jerusalem. Herod meant only evil.”
“But what am I to say if he sends envoys here to me?”
“Herod is not worth your consideration, sire,” the young counselor said. Again he looked west, but this time deep sorrow draped his face, not longing.
“We received word on the caravan route from a courier passing us on his way to Damascus,” said the first magus. “Herod killed them all.”
“He killed the child of the prophecy? And his parents?”
“No, they were no longer in Bethlehem. But he killed every boy born in that village since the time we first saw the star that led us to the child.”
“How foolish we were to tell him all we’d seen!” said the youngest.
“Remember, this too was prophesied by the Jews,” the old man said quietly, now seated again in his chair. “Bethlehem would mourn.”
“So your trip ends in tragedy. I am sorry.”
“We are not,” said the first counselor, as the others spoke their agreement.
“We have stood in the presence of heaven, and that is enough.” The old man stood again. “Yet I am not satisfied with mere memories. With the king’s permission, I would like a room set aside where I may pray to the One True God.”
“As would I,” said the first wise man.
“And I,” said the others in their turn.
“I see that you are all changed by this encounter,” said the king, his voice barely a whisper. He shook himself and smiled. “You shall have your room. Perhaps you can include a prayer for me, that I might come to understand what you received in that village.”
The old one stood and laid his hand on his king’s shoulder, smiling as he passed out of the room. “I have already begun, Sire.”