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The Wise Men
With only the briefest of searches on the internet, I was able to find twenty-seven classical paintings of the adoration of the magi. The kings are shown in stables, barns, a cave, a small house and even a palace. Sometimes, they are seen alone with the Holy Family, more usually with a few other visitors, but in some cases with quite a crowd; a crowd sometimes so sumptuously dressed that it is difficult to discern the kings among them. With such a variety, it is a wonder that so many of the Christmas cards on my mantelpiece agree so well with one another on the essential elements of the nativity. Why we might, ask are there so many views of this story? The answer lies maybe in the uncertainty of it all. The reading that we have heard this morning and remember please that this is it, there is no other reference, is interesting for what it does not say:
It does not say that the visitors were kings, (this was a thirteenth century innovation) nor even magi but they are wise men from the East. It does not say that they were three; this is a later inference from the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. It does not say that the wise men found Jesus in a stable in a manger but rather in an house with his mother Mary, no mention of Joseph, the ox or the ass and Jesus is definitely a child not an infant at all. This makes sense not only of Herod asking, "when did the star appear?" but also of what we know he will do next, which is to order the massacre of all children under two years of age. To be sure of including Jesus: the wise men came to visit sometime during Jesus' first year. It took them that long to arrive once the star had announced his birth. Luke, as I said, omits the episode title altogether, moving directly from the Shepherds to Jesus' circumcision at eight daysí old, followed then by his presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem. Yet the coming of the wise men, the Epiphany, the immediate spreading of the good news holds a place in our hearts, so much so that over time the story has been refined and developed so that they are kings and they have names. In the sixth century, they became Caspar, Balt hazar and Melchior, one of whom is traditionally a black African so that the three represent for us the whole of human kind.
But should we worry that the details are hazy, that the account has been embellished, that we cannot quite be sure when in Jesus' biography this took place nor that the astronomers have not quite agreed on what the star was? I think not, what is illuminating I think is to consider why Matthew included the story, it occupies but a few verses in his Gospel and might as in Luke's version have been omitted.
The kings have qualities that Matthew wants us to understand and perceive especially in view of his overriding purpose, which was to make the Gospel known to and believed by the Jewish people of first century Palestine.
He shows the kings' interest and diligence in studying the scriptures. They quote to Herod from the prophet Micah, the book most clearly available to the chief priests who have not paid attention to the star nor the prophet, or if they have, then with surprising apathy. Even once the kings affirm that they are to go in search of the Messiah, it seems the chief priests are content to let them go, uninterested in what could have brought these exotic visitors so far to see what is after all there on their own doorstep. This apathy, signalled so early in the narrative will, as we know, turn to antagonism and hostility and finally to the plot that will lead to crucifixion. The kings come from afar; the priests of Israel were nearby.
The kings are open to spiritual guidance, not only by following the star, a heavenly sign, but also, we are told, by paying attention to the warning given to them in a dream so that they go home by another road and do not reveal to Herod what they have seen. The kings save the baby; the priests of Israel will condemn him.
These kings are a total contrast to Herod. They come to see a baby who is born a king, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" they ask. Herod was a usurper king, not a Jew at all and so he is alarmed by the idea; he is full of self interest and determined to protect his position. The kings come to pay homage; Herod plans to extinguish any opposition.
But overarching all this is the fact that the kings come to worship Jesus, "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."
Stories, like art, are created to help us discover truth, and we may find truth by looking at the Gospel as written, at the tradition that has developed from it and as well at the many representations of the event that can be found in artworks dating from the second century to the most modern. This truth is that Jesus' coming was welcomed by the wise men who, wide open to spiritual guidance, devoted time, energy and study to come to see for themselves and who, once there, fell down and worshipped who they found; God, who had come to earth to save the whole world. That may be why one of my favourite depictions is the Leonardo da Vinci early unfinished painting to be found in Florence, painted for an alt arpiece there in 1481 before he left that city for better things. This painting shows the wise men grouped around the virgin and child, not lined up as in most pictures, there they are in total adoration gathered around passionately, absolutely focussed on the child, each one equal with the others and with Jesus at the very centre of everything.
And that I think is the story.