The Gift of the Magi

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published December 23, 2016.

How much do we trust the mind? How much should we—when thoughts lead on to thoughts, conjectures build atop conjectures, hypotheses extend upon hypotheses until it all seems just . . . too . . . much, a daydream from which we shake ourselves awake?

The crèches that come out at Christmas, crowding the side table in the living room or overflowing on the mantel, usually surround the Holy Family with animals and angels gazing at the child in the manger. Plus the shepherds, of course, and the Wise Men.

Of them all, the Wise Men—the Magi, the Three Kings—may be the oddest. From Mary and Joseph to the shepherds and the kneeling animals, a crèche shows us mostly figures of faith. But the Magi seem to represent something else. They are symbols and icons not of simple faith but of trust in the power of the mind.

Think of it this way. The rural shepherds came down from the hills because the angels appeared and told them of the Savior’s birth. The animals were all on their knees, moved by the visible sight of the divine. But the Magi had to have set out long before, in order to arrive in time. They had to read the stars, the signs of the age and the deep meanings of the universe—and then act on what they thought they had discerned. These were city dwellers and learned people, and when a great star appeared in the sky, they followed their intellectual curiosity and journeyed off to discover where it led. They brought gifts, because they wanted to honor the newborn king for whom they were searching. More to the point, they brought gifts because they imagined they might actually find him.

All of which is to say, they had the intelligence to examine honestly the clues the world offered them. They had the wisdom to seek the truth for its own sake, whatever it might prove to be. These are believers in the mind, in other words, who undertook a great expedition because they trusted their thoughts, conjectures, and hypotheses—and refused to shake themselves back into the small thoughts of ordinary life.

A cold coming they had of it, the worst time of the year to take a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off: in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter.

Or so Lancelot Andrewes preached, to King James I on Christmas Day 1622, about the Journey of the Magi to see the newborn Christ. The Magi occupy such an odd layer of the vast panoply of Christmas legends that wrap the holiday like festive paper. Only the Gospel of St. Matthew mentions them in the Bible, and even Matthew’s Nativity story leaves them unnamed. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Gospel reports they brought as gifts and homage, and from the numbering of three gifts there emerged in early Christianity the legend that there were three of them: the Three Kings, the three Wise Men.

Even the day of their arrival is uncertain. Though crèches often show them gathered at the manger, Matthew has the Magi finding Mary and Jesus sometime later in a house (oikos, in the Greek of the Gospel). That visit may have come as much as two years later (since after speaking with the Magi, Herod orders the death of all boys up to two years old, in the Massacre of the Innocents), or it may have come as soon as two weeks after his birth—on Epiphany, January 6, the Magi’s traditional feast day in the Western church.

Tradition has granted them the title of kings, probably after Psalm 72:11: Yea, all kings shall fall down before him. And tradition has given them names, together with origins and ages of symbolic value, representing the known lands of the East and the three stages of adult life. Caspar, a 60-year-old man from Asia Minor or Persia, offers gold. Melchior, a 40-year-old man from Arabia or India, comes with frankincense. And Balthazar, a 20-year-old man from Ethiopia or Babylon, brings myrrh.

It’s a swirl of uncertainty, with the spread of Christianity prompting different nations to identify themselves as home to the births or the deaths of the Magi—tradition squabbling with tradition about nearly every detail. Still, the initial moment in Matthew is clear: In the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

Herod had reason to be worried. His rule as a client of the Romans was unstable: Judea was a powder-keg of religious anger, political unrest, and apocalyptic feeling. Then suddenly these distinguished scholars arrive—out of the east, out of the blue—and demand to know where they can find the new-born king, Herod’s replacement, whose appearance they have read in the stars.

Interestingly, it is Herod who points them to Bethlehem, when his own scholars tell him that the prophet Micah has named the small town as the birthplace of the coming king—a ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2). And so to Bethlehem they came, following their star, to find the infant Jesus, bow before him, and give their gifts to his mother. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

In his 1927 poem “The Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot begins with a cold coming we had of it, in lines adapted from Lancelot Andrewes’ 1622 sermon. Eliot builds from there a dramatic monologue of an old man remembering a tedious journey he had made years before. Along the way, the man and his Magi companions saw signs and symbols of the new age that Christ has ushered in, from the Crucifixion (three trees on the low sky) to the Apocalypse (an old white horse galloped away in the meadow). But what strikes him most, even years later, is not the birth of the child and the beginning of a new world, but the death of the old order that must result from it all:

. . . were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” remains a powerful way to think about the Three Kings of Orient: In every gain there must be some loss, as the old gives way to the new. The unnamed Wise Man who narrates the poem proves wise enough to see the changing of the times; that is why he undertook the journey to Bethlehem and why, he says, he would do it again if he had to. But he also finds himself lost in the new day. His learning allowed him to perceive the change that Christ brought; that same learning trapped him in the old day, dying away.

I wonder, though, if this is the only way to understand the Magi. In a curious passage in the Confessions (VII, 9, 13-14) St. Augustine suggests that the philosophers could, at their best, foresee many things that Christianity would later reveal as true. The Platonists could observe, at least in effect, that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” They could work their minds in metaphysics, in other words, and discover deep ideas—conjectures, hypotheses—about the structure of the universe. What they couldn’t discover, by philosophy alone, was that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

For most philosophers, it would be easy enough not to bother looking for the real instantiation of their abstract ideas. They could just shake themselves awake—returning to everyday thoughts and abandoning the trust of philosophy that might have kept them going. Typical Christmastide sermons preach on the simple faith of the shepherds who were told of the great incarnation, believed it, and came down from the hills to honor the child. Yet we shouldn’t scorn the Magi’s complex, tenuous work of the mind. These are the saints of intellect: They grasped some small part of the universe’s need for a Savior, the philosophical signs of a new age, and they set out on a long, hard journey to find the actuality of the possibilities they discerned.

A cold coming they had of it, in truth, for the conjectures of the mind are chillier than the warmth of the shepherds’ simple faith. But the Magi’s trust that creation is intelligible—their certainty that the star they followed must mean something—kept them on their path until they, too, knelt before the Word made flesh.