The Magi are the stuff of legend. Matthew says nothing about “kings” or “three”–he simply calls them “wise men from the East” and names the three gifts they brought–gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nothing about camels, although the Isaiah passage talks about a multitude of young camels, bringing gold and frankincense, and so we’ve come to picture them striding across the desert on camels.
They are exotic though, these magi. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. They’re not from “back east,” where we once were, but “The East,” where we’ve never been and nobody we know has ever been. You could tell they weren’t “from these here parts” when they rode into Jerusalem, asking for directions to Herod’s palace to find out about the new king who had been born “king of the Jews.” If you knew Herod, and any kid in Jerusalem could have told you this, you would not want to be the one to break the news that a potential rival had been born.
So the story has grown from those 12 verses in Matthew’s gospel. In our own kind of Christian midrash, we’ve zeroed in on these 3 strangers, called them kings, since who else would have had the resources to travel such a distance with such lavish gifts? We’ve named them–Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar……–and given them different ages and skin colors. T.S. Eliot wrote a poem about them. O’Henry a short story. They capture our imaginations, much more than the drab and lowly shepherds probably, though maybe we can relate to shepherds more closely than kings. Each serve their purpose–one perhaps to cause us to look at how wonder might interrupt our daily work and one to cause us to look up, beyond the horizon, searching for a star to guide us.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Since the Middle Ages at least, the gifts have been given meaning, since everything in the Bible then was thought to have some allegorical meaning. Gold for a king, obviously; frankincense for a priest, as its smoke curls up like prayer; and myrrh for anointing the dead.
But Nancy Rockwell reminds us that in legends–which we often dismiss, though they were and in some places still are considered hallowed sources of wisdom,–in legends “children often set out on dangerous journeys, with huge tasks to accomplish that only hopeful hearts would undertake: the kind of hearts you can find only in children,” she says, though I would add that such hope may also be found in elders who have come to realize they have nothing to lose. Just before they set out, “Someone (a godparent, a good witch, a mysterious beggar, a dying king) gives three small and curious things, puzzling things that seem to have no special use (a comb, a mirror, a seashell, a stone, a whistle, whatever) and an assurance that, when the time is right, these will be very useful. And sure enough, they are the keys to surviving ominous perils.” [a bite in the apple, 12/28/14]
For example, in the Harry Potter saga–the wonderful legend that has captured the hearts and minds of millions of children and adults as well– the great wizard Dumbledore bequeaths to Harry, Ron, and Hermione the golden snitch–the prize of Quiddich games, a deluminator–to extinguish lights, and Dumbledore’s copy of the children’s book Tales of Beedle the Bard; all of which turn out to be essential, and ultimately life-saving, in their quest to defeat the evil Voldemort.
So, in the legend of the Magi, Rockwell wonders whether the three gifts–gold, frankincense, and myrrh–might not only have been symbolic of king, priest, and sacrifice, but also practical gifts whose use became clear as the Holy Family’s journey continued. When Herod learned that the Magi had not returned to inform him of the whereabouts of the child, he has his soldiers spread out through Jerusalem and its environs, which would have included Bethlehem, just 9 miles away, and slaughter every male child under the age of 2. The Magi’s gold might have bought safe passage out of Jerusalem for Joseph, who had been warned to flee in a dream, with his wife and child. Medicinal and funereal herbs and spices like frankincense and myrrh could have been traded in the market on the way to Egypt, or for housing in Egypt, or for clothing to blend in as refugees. A stored coin or two could have made the journey back to Galilee possible when again, told in a dream, Joseph took his family back in safety.
Rockwell wonders if Jesus’ later stories commending the housewife who searched her house diligently for lost coins or those coming to the aid of strangers didn’t have their seeds in stories told in his own childhood home. Three gifts for the journey.
The wonderful Scottish theologian and poet John Philip Newell says that three things strike him about the story of the Magi. We might think of them as three gifts from the story– 1. It’s a story about following stars and paying attention to dreams and how different that is from the training we receive in the West. Mostly we’re told to get our heads out of the stars and stop dreaming so we can pay attention to the “important” things, things that will really get us somewhere–a job, for starters.
#2 says Newell is that the story of the Magi is a story about finding the Light beyond the boundaries of the known and familiar, beyond our own nation, our own religious tradition, our own culture. That has certainly been true of my own exploration of other religious traditions. Like Newell, I should have known I was loved from my own tradition, yet somehow I was better able to truly hear it when it was reinforced from another tradition. They complement one another, rather than compete with one another.
The third thing about the story of the Magi, for Newell, is the enormous risk involved. For it is true that the Light is a threat to political power. Any power that favors some and not all is false power. The reminder of the risk involved in the search is a gift to us when we find our-selves attacked, usually just verbally or mentally when we threaten the status quo, but for many of our brothers and sisters, the risk is far greater.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Three gifts. Instead of making huge resolutions this new year, why not tuck in 3 gifts from the Magi that may help you find your way? One gift of those star-gazers and dreamers for us might be to give us permission to spend more time literally looking up at the stars– wondering, imagining, searching. Resolve to go outside even briefly every night that isn’t overcast, and notice the stars, maybe educate yourself and your kids and grandkids about the constellations and phases of the moon. Pay attention to your dreams–keep a pad of paper and pencil by your bedside and write down any dreams you can remember, before they fade. See what emerges. And pay attention to your daydreams–what does your heart desire?
A second gift might be an openness to learn from those outside your circle of family or friends, maybe outside your religion or nationality or culture. Ask a Jewish friend about what shabbat or sabbath means to them. Try facing east and first kneeling, then prostrating yourself to God, once, twice, maybe five times in a day. What body wisdom might you learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters? Our world is too connected, communication and learning from one another too simple to stay shut up in our own truths and traditions.
A third gift, for risk-taking, might be to practice taking 3 deep breaths each morning, perhaps saying an affirmation to yourself with each one–I am beloved or the Lord is my shepherd or Thank you for Your presence or just Thank you. If that breath becomes deeply enough part of you, you may be able to call it up in times of fear or distress or challenge.
And perhaps that is the greatest gift of the Magi–the discovery that the distant Light is actually the same Light that is at the heart of our own lives. The Breath that gives life to all life is in our own breath. We may go home by another way, but when we arrive home at last, we find it transformed. As poet Mary Oliver writes, “Then I go back to my house, my own life, which has now become brighter and simpler, somewhere I have never been before.” Our daily bread becomes Christ’s body, the wine becomes Christ’s blood which flows through every vein.
Gifts for the journey, whether we travel far or simply deep. May the angels of light glisten for us this day. [Newell]. May we keep the feast. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark