Do you ever wonder about the Three Kings, the Wise Men? They are, of course, almost instantly recognizable, at least in Western culture; if you see a cut-out of them on a lawn or a card at Christmas, you know what that refers to. And there has been much scientific speculation over the years about the star that they were following, and who they actually were. The best scholarship speculates that they were court astrologers from Persia – magi, wise ones, using the science of their day to give advice and counsel to the court. And that star? Some have claimed it was a comet, or an eclipse, or a unique conjunction of planets in the night sky [cf. http://faculty.rmc.edu/gspagna/public_html/Star%20of%20Bethlehem.html]. We’ll probably never know the astronomical answer to that.
But here’s the way the Church throughout the centuries has interpreted their presence in this account of Jesus’ birth – and, by the way, they only show up in Matthew’s Gospel, and some time after the actual event. These Wise Men were the vanguard of the revelation to the Gentiles. God had always promised that when the time was fulfilled, and God’s purposes for His people and for the world were ready, that Gentiles, as well as Jews, would come to the light of God’s brightness. The Wise Men were understood to be the beginning of that manifestation, that epiphany. Their traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar are not in the Bible, and come from a Greek manuscript around 500 AD, and in holy legends they come from Persia, Arabia, and Babylon, although different ancient Christian communities such as Western China and South India claim that one of their own was a Wise Man. In the crèche on our mantle at home, each of the Magi is represented by a traditional Asian statue – one from China, one from Korea, and one from Japan.
And their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Again, the centuries-old interpretation is that each gift represented an aspect of Jesus’ life and being: gold to symbolize his kingship, frankincense to recognize his divinity, and myrrh to acknowledge the coming suffering of his humanity. In many Spanish-speaking countries children put out a shoe before bed on the night of January 5, Epiphany Eve, and wake up to small gifts and sweets that have been brought by Los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings.
The symbolic and theological meaning of these three is rich and varied, and nearly every Christian culture has something to say about them, something to add to our understanding. But for the moment, let’s put all that aside and wonder about them as individuals – what were they thinking and feeling when the searched for this New-born King? When they enquired of Herod as to the baby’s possible whereabouts? When they finally found the Christ Child and presented their tribute to him? When they paid attention to the dream that warned them not to return to Herod, but to go home by another road?
Clearly, they felt that undertaking this long and arduous journey – at least seventy days from Persia to Jerusalem – was important and worthwhile; that there was something of cosmic significance that was taking place. This was as much a spiritual pilgrimage as it was a diplomatic envoy. But to arrive at a place so humble, so ordinary. Matthew doesn’t say anything about a manger; I can imagine that by the time Magi arrived Joseph had found some better lodgings for them, but still it was a house, not a palace, a poor young mother with her tradesman husband. What must have the Magi thought? That they had come all that way for nothing? That their study and prayer and effort had led them to a false conclusion? Or were they satisfied, knowing that the ways of the Divine are often not human ways, and that what is Truth is not often revealed according to our expectations? Did they see or sense in the Baby something of the Holy? Did they know on a gut level that this was, indeed, the One for whom their gifts were appropriate?
And what about that dream? Herod had wanted them to come back and report to him when they had found the Child, ostensibly so that he, too, could worship this New King. But his murderous plot was foiled when God sent the Magi a dream to warn them. We don’t know the content of their dream, but we know they took it seriously. In the ancient world people understood that God spoke in dreams and visions, and that they were worth paying attention to. Perhaps the dream confirmed for them the identity of Jesus, and that both he and they would be in danger if they went back to Herod. So they returned home by another road, a different route.
I imagine that they were different on the trip home. Not only had they fulfilled their quest and paid their tribute and homage, but now they had a story to tell, and time to reflect on the meaning of that story. And yet the fulfillment of it, the end of the story, would have to wait until Jesus grew up, until he had completed is public ministry, until his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Did the Magi’s story lie fallow that whole time, told once and then forgotten Or did they gather to reminisce about their journey on an annual basis, marking the progress of years and the age of the Child, waiting for news of whatever would come next? When word of the Crucified and Risen Messiah reached Persia did they know that this was the same Person they had visited in Bethlehem; were the Magi even still alive? I wonder.
What I do know is this, that we have gifts to offer to Christ, each one of us, and that we are each blessed by his divinity, by his humanity, and by his sovereignty over our lives and life as a whole. The questions that may have been on the hearts of the Magi should be our questions to ponder and pray over. And once we have an encounter with the Living God, born in the person of the Baby of Bethlehem, we will be changed; our lives will take a different road – for we have seen the One who is light to enlighten the Gentiles, the rising of the Morning Star, that salvation of the whole world.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who made known the Incarnation of thy Word by a star of stunning brilliance, which the wise men followed until they came to worship and offered their treasures before the infant Lord resting in his mother’s arms; grant that the star of thy righteousness my always appear in our hearts to lead us and to inspire us to offer the treasure of our praise and the worship of our lives that reflect thy goodness; through him whose birth among us is our hope. Amen.
~ St. Augustine’s Prayer Book
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2016