For several years now, I have made a Christmas card featuring me and my dogs. This year, I picked the Three Kings or Magi as the theme. I love the song and as a kid, Brazilians used to make elaborate manger scenes, moving the shepherds and three kings closer to the manger every day. If you are not familiar with the story, the visit to the Christ child, several days after the birth, is celebrated in January and was recorded in the book of Matthew:
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.” (Matthew 2:1-12)
Here is a fun rendition of both the song and the three kings in claymation style:
Biblical scholars date the Gospel of Matthew from 50-100 years after Christ’s death. This means that there were plenty of people around who were either alive and had direct contact with Christ and the apostles or that the stories, the oral tradition, was still fresh enough to be close to the truth. If you look closely at the text, you see that it doesn’t mention how many wise men there were, where they were from, nor when exactly they arrived. All of the stories we now have of them came much later and generated their own folk-lore. Wikipedia, as usual, documents some of the history and questions these three kings present. The most interesting to me are connections made to Zoroastrians and astrology, ties that most Christians today would find strange indeed.
The Adoration of the Magi, tapestry, wool and silk on cotton warp,
101 1/8 x 151 1/4 inches (258 x 384 cm.),
Manchester Metropolitan University 1894
|You may have noticed that both the video and the tapestry above, show three men of different ethnic backgrounds. There are many traditions, but most current art show a black king, representing Africa, a Mongolian one representing Asia, and a white one standing in for Europe, the three areas of the world that were then known. Their ages are also symbolic of young, middle age and old. The earliest art, 400 AD, shows them wearing Persian dress. This evolved over time and in different ways, depending on the place. Eventually, they even got names: Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. Western Christianity has often described them as scholars, as a way, perhaps to downplay the magician or astrologer’s role, hailing from Persia, India and Arabia.|
The story is fun and heartwarming in our tradition. That is, unless your Dad, who happens to be a pastor, preaches now and then about the horror that took place when those three kings listened to their dream and took a different road home. They were supposed to go and report to King Herod where they found this baby, this King of the Jews. Instead, they took off, lickety-split, as did Mary, Joseph and the baby, who went into hiding in Egypt. Herod orders all boy babies under two years of age to be killed. Thus, the verse still in this same chapter, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18) The birth of the babe is overshadowed by the flowing of blood. That always gave me the creeps when we chose to keep on reading….
The gifts brought by the Magi have meaning, too, of course. Everything does!
Gold: attesting to Christ’s stature as a king.
Frankincense: connecting earth with the heavens, the spiritual realm.
Myrrh: used in embalming, made reference to his future death, the grand sacrifice for humanity.
For Christians, the birth of the Christ child symbolizes the coming of Peace on Earth. We see the message on Christmas cards and sing about it in our hymns. This new king is not about war, domination, wealth or borders, but rather about the spirit, about the Golden Rule (love your neighbor as yourself), about forgiving prostitutes and praising the innocence of children. It’s the flipping of dominant values of that time where the treasures of the world meant nothing. Instead, we are to seek the Kingdom of God and to give away all of our riches, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and so on.
I find it ironic that a couple thousand years go by and things are basically still the same. Think about what is going on in that region… if those three kings represent Iran, India and some of the Saudi countries and at that time they could go around star-gazing in Israel, they were actually better off than we are now. They would not talk to each other, much less go camping in the desert together!
And, how Christmas has become warped and trivialized. I do like that it is a time when people, whether they celebrate the Christ Mass or not, do stop and show some of their affection for family and friends. Even if Christ is taken out the whole thing and we get Xmas instead, if people use this time to think about the other, then it can be good for all of society. But, I have a feeling that for many, it is also a stressful time where the giving also rises the expectation of the getting, and if I don’t “get” enough, maybe you just end up not being good enough…. Sigh…. It’s sad, isn’t it?
Children make Christmas fun! We had wonderful ones when I was a child. My parents were great at both making it a special “getting” time while always holding the Christ in the Mass, making it clear why this was an important time for us. Now I have my dogs and so I have some fun with them, making a funny card and enjoying the season. This always marks the end of a retail frenzy and I can take a break from trying to sell, from listing things in the shops, and just breathe a bit.
Whatever this season means for you, I hope that you, too, can slow down and enjoy that promise of Peace. Guns are not the solution for the mess we have created and neither are possessions. Love is. Let your light shine and if you can, follow that yonder star, the one parked right above the Babe.
Christmas 1967: I got a Busy Buzz Buzz!!!