Mt 2.1-12                       Is 60.1-6            Eph 3.2-6   (Rhyme Bible: “The Wise Men”)

And now it’s time for the wise men to appear on the scene, representing diversity and inclusion, such that all are welcome at the Christmas scene. Once again, I revert to my own happy childhood memories of anticipation, even excitement, looking forward to the completion of the Nativity scene.  The mythology has developed from the beginning, with wise men or Magi morphing into Kings, and the number 3 extrapolated from the 3 gifts Matthew mentions in his Gospel.

In my little book, “The Gifts of the Magi”, (accompanied by sample gifts, but I fear only fools’ gold,  it says Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153AD) suggested that “Gold was given to the Virgin Mary to relieve her poverty, frankincense to dispel the bad odour of the stable, and myrrh to drive away the vermin and worms”.  More than this, however, “Gold, as a form of tribute and the property of royalty, indicated that Jesus was a king. Frankincense, which played such an important role in religious rituals and offerings to deities, showed that Jesus was God. And myrrh, which was used in burials, prefigured Jesus’ death and indicated his humanity.” So it’s all very symbolic.

It is said the Egyptians chewed frankincense for bad breath and sore gums, used also in cosmetics and medicines. Here’s a good one, too, where it was thought by some, that, medicinally, myrrh “was believed to cure everything from nappy (diaper) rash to baldness.”   Who knows?  But I wouldn’t recommend the tradition that “held that a person might gain immortality by drinking an elixir of gold”!!  I’d prefer to cash it in first!

And there are supposed relics of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral, which I’ve seen myself, but only God knows how they might have got there!  There’s nothing to match medieval fraud!

Then their names evolved into Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, Caspar, who in particular represents racial diversity, as he became dark-skinned.  It just makes one wonder how racism is so endemic in human societies, despite our common DNA for one, and, in terms of Christian faith and Gospel message, the fact that all are of equal value.

Down through the ages, artists have used their creative imagination in portraying the scene, with diverse ethnicities and ages, from Persia, India or Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

As for the star, primarily symbolic, it has been suggested to be anything from a supernova to a comet to a meteor or falling star, connected with fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies.  There was the thought that this linked with astrology or Zoroastrianism, but the conclusion is that the power of astral determinism is broken by the coming of Jesus into our world, and we are not just consigned to our fate, as read from the stars, so don’t worry about your horoscopes, even if it is suggested by some jokers that astrology is more reliable than economic theory!

Isn’t it a lovely story, rich with symbolism and contrasting with the initial appearance of the lowly shepherds, unimportant figures in the society of that time, despite providing an essential service of shepherding?   And now the exotic figures arrive with their gifts.  

The Magi mysteriously come in from the East, under the shadow of darkness, in that Herod is portrayed as the evil one who is threatened by his sense that a child is born who will threaten his power and wealth, ultimately usurp him and dethrone him.  His evil response is immediately to seek elimination, rather than to acknowledge the wonder and joy of this birth, but deviously pretending to show interest and concern about the welfare of the child and the meaning of it all.  

The Journey of the Magi is described in poetry in 43 lines, with TS Eliot the most well known version, imaginative and colourful. I remember  short story by O Henry, titled “The Gift of the Magi”, wherein a husband sells his watch to buy his wife a comb for her lovely long hair, while she cuts her hair to sell it to buy him a chain for his watch. In the end, they realize that it’s their mutual love and willingness to make sacrifices for each other that counts!

Then there’s the Irish version, a poem about the Fourth wise man who brings a fruit cake, a fluffy toy and 6 months’ nappy service! I’ve even got the Australian version, “The Three Wise Blokes”, who find Baby Jesus in Outback Australia, concluding: “The Mayor of Broome wept when they spoke of that day when they saw baby Jesus in the crib where he lay. ‘Was he really so beautiful?’ the mayor asked, as he may. ‘More beautiful than life’, was all they could say.”  Cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig also gets in on the act with his image of the 3 Wise Men lost en route: “There’s no stable or manger on Google maps. I think we should call an Uber!”  So the imagination runs wild when it come to the Magi.

Pope Francis, in an Epiphany reflection, quotes the late Pope Benedict XVI, who “said of the Magi: “Their outward pilgrimage was the expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts.”

Yes, the ominous shadows are there from the start, portending danger in the future and the  ultimate cross of crucifixion and death, but the mission of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is to inevitably proceed meanwhile, as he calls his disciples and shows them the way of lives lived in faith, as he does us now. It is a story which has inspired so many to reflect on the journey, the generosity, and the wonder of the mystery of Incarnation.

Once more, we take the Christmas message of love, peace and good will to all to heart, as we continue our life’s journey, accompanied by our loving Saviour, born for us all, all along the way.   To conclude,  Brendan Byrne SJ has a good line too: “We too walk in the footsteps of the wise men, sharing their longing, their faith, and the joy of their discovery, and bringing our own gifts to the Lord.”

john hannon               Epiphany                                         8th   January  2023

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