Epiphany A, 2008
A Liturgy is also available
MAGI: DUBIOUS FACTS BUT CHRISTIAN IMAGINATION
The image of the wise men from the East kneeling before the infant child,
offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship
for countless generations.
‘As with gladness men of old...’
‘We three kings of orient are...’
most of us, for example, have traditionally sung over the years.
The story, itself, has always fascinated people because, it is claimed,
it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient
and to the mysteries of the heavens.
Yet it is only the storyteller Matthew
who tells for us the legendary story of the Magi who come to visit Jesus.
This story has been richly embellished over the years.
The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s story.
In Christian imagination they have ranged from two to a whole cohort.
But in most of nativity art,
from earliest times to the present, there are three.
Which seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers!
Could all those crib sets be wrong?
This question of numbers may seem to be a bit of trivia
reserved for Trivial Pursuits evenings and dining with pious clerics.
But the conversation definitely heats up
when someone suggests that the number was zero!
That the story of the Magi is only ‘legendary’.
We may even remember the names that Christian imagination has given them.
I can tell you know they were called:
Astrologers, magicians, philosophers?
Philologists and storytellers hold differing opinions.
And again despite our nativity cribs and Christmas cards,
no suggestion as to the mode of transportation is offered in the Matthew story.
Contemporary storyteller and Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests:
“The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into strange ways of faith... The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection” (Shea 2003:130).
Indeed he goes on to further suggest that the Magi of popular poetry and story:
“... do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew... Yet they do try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives. They try to make good on the Isaiah promise that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’.”
What are these ‘Magi of popular poetry and story’?
G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on three modern wise men.
They journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem,
where they offered their gifts.
The first would offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth.
The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry -
the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population.
The third would offer myrrh in the shape of a split atom -
the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace.
When they arrived they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance.
“What more could we possibly need to assure peace?
“We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?”
Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually.
They went away sad.
He told them they had forgotten the child.
There is another legend that the Magi were three different ages.
Gaspar was a young man.
Balthasar in his middle years.
Melchior a senior citizen.
When they approached the cave in Bethlehem they first went in one at a time.
Melchior found an old man like himself.
They spoke together of memory and gratitude.
The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years.
They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility.
When Gaspar entered,
a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise.
The three met outside the cave and marvelled at how each
had gone in to see a new-born child,
but each had met someone of his own years.
And Black poet Langston Hughes
plays upon the theme of racial unity in “Carol of the Brown King”.
“Of the three Wise Men
Who came to the King,
One was a brown man,
So they sing.
“Of the three Wise Men
Who followed the star
One was a brown king
And the last verse:
“Three Wise Men
One dark like me -
Part of His
The imaginative stories around the Magi
share in the remembering and celebrating
as well as the concerns which is the season of Epiphany.
Thanks to the poets among us, those legendary foreigners from the East
who follow "a fairy-tale star" (Ranke-Heinemann 1994:25)
can be our spiritual guides today.
For they have been made to cross the boundaries of
and religion, to follow their star,
"a very low-flying fairy-tale star at that" (Ranke-Heinemann 1994:25).
We have all been given our own star or, better still,
each of us has a "personal legend".
As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world
in a unique and singular manner…
“We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression” (Morwood 2003:20).
Epiphany calls us to follow that dream into unlikely places
and to see that dream in unlikely and ordinary persons.
Morwood, M. 2003. Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Ranke-Heineman, U. 1994. Putting away childish things. How the Myths Behind the Church's Key Doctrines Distort Jesus' Real Message. New York. HarperCollins
Shea, J. 1993. Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad.