Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Get Wise to the Epiphany

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Get Wise to the Epiphany

Article excerpt

The journey of the Magi and our own pilgrimages lead to the same insight: That God is everywhere, but especially in "little" places.

"WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE / BEARING gifts we traverse afar / Field and fountain, moor and mountain / Following yonder star...."

There weren't three. And they weren't kings. The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior got attached to the legend generations later. We don't know that one of them, or only one of them, is black. Much of what we think we know of the three figures standard to every manger scene is illusory, but that doesn't take away the magic of these characters in our religious imagination. Their arrival into the Christmas story--better late than never, on January 6--makes the event feel more complete. The Magi bring more than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They bring our awe and homage to the little king on the throne of straw.

Consider what scripture tells us about them. Only Matthew mentions the numberless group of foreigners who come in pursuit of a star and its message. The word Magi comes from a Persian name for the priests of Zoroastrianism, a wisdom cult that found meaning in astrology, dreams, and other mystical dimensions. Practitioners of magic, as we know from elsewhere in the Bible, are frowned upon in salvation history but not presented as phonies. For one who follows the God of Israel, the power of God is supposed to be sufficient and no personal power is to be hoarded.

Yet the Magi are not presented negatively for their "Eastern" persuasion. We learn from their journey that even foreign religions will acknowledge the Christ child as king. Their fidelity to the sign in the heavens, and their attentiveness to dreams, show them to be good at their art, as well as open to sources of wisdom outside of their own provenance.

Because they bring three gifts to the babe of Bethlehem, Western tradition presumed there were three Wise Men. Because naming nameless figures in the Bible became popular in the early centuries of the church, it wasn't long before the three had names, were identified with the three known continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa), the three ages of human life (young, middle-aged, and old), and were called descendants of the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth, responsible for repopulating the earth after the flood). They came to be known as kings, partly because they achieved an audience with King Herod, and also by association with prophetic visions (see Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, both of which are read on the feast of the Epiphany).

Meanwhile, Armenian and Syrian traditions numbered the Magi at 12, a popular and significant biblical number, and conceived names for these 12, not to mention accompanying lineages and stories. It wasn't long before their legend was extended to include chronicles of their journey before and after Bethlehem, as well as stories about their deaths. Artists, too, contributed to the story with their delight in painting, sculpting, and drawing the Wise Men, and soon they became an indispensable part of the Christmas story. Legend contributed the story of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, finding the skulls of the three in the Holy Land, which eventually found rest in the cathedral at Cologne, prized relics to this day.

But perhaps the reason we are fascinated by these wise ones throughout history is that we bear their ambition in our hearts as well. We search for Christ across time and in many lands, looking for signs of him in our world. We travel bearing our own gifts, awkward and insufficient to present perhaps, but valuable because they are all we have. We embellish their tale with echoing legends of the drummer boy or the littlest angel, also gift-bearers to the crib, only their gifts are humble, more like the presents children exchange. This is reassuring to us who do not have gold and myrrh ready at hand. Though we come to present no more than ourselves, our little pat on the drum, we hope it will be deemed enough. …

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