IT IS a glittering story. The kings travel across deserts from
the fabled East towards an unknown destination. Their compass is a
mysterious star, and they carry fabulously valuable presents
The crunch comes when they find not a palace, but a sordid
stable. The tale evolves into a grim struggle between good and
evil. Herod, the epitome of darkness, fearing that his power will
be usurped, issues a chilling edict. All male babies in the region
are to be killed. The Holy Family makes a dramatic night-time
escape, and finds sanctuary in Egypt.
Time has embroidered the legend. Astronomers have conjectured
whether the star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, or a
comet, or an exploding supernova. Tradition clothes the Magi with
names: Balthasar, from Arabia; Melchior, a Persian; and Gaspar, of
Indian stock. Scholarship adds its veneer. They were descendants of
the Hindu Brahmins, or perhaps Zoroastrian priests.
Poets and folklore have jazzed up these three elusive figures.
T. S. Eliot in Journey of the Magi talks of refractory
camels, sherbet-wielding girls, night fires, filthy weather,
liquor, and women. The story makes gripping reading in a candlelit
church, and would prove a good box-office draw.
Then, in a single throwaway sentence, St Matthew bursts the
balloon. "They returned to their own country by another way." It
cannot be that his descriptive skills suddenly failed at the end of
a vivid travelogue: he was far too good a writer for that.
The Evangelist is making a profound theological point. We cannot
encounter the Christ and remain unchanged. The old signposts get
knocked sideways, and our thought-forms are fundamentally
realigned. This is precisely what happened to the kings.
They had expected to alight on a world of crowns, fawning
courtiers, royal robes, and hard cash. The reality was the reek of
livestock, a comfortless barn, a crude delivery, and an
overwhelming fear for the future. Forget the colourful cards with
docile animals, self-satisfied parents, and a handmade cradle
filled with sanitised straw. The epiphany scene sends materialism
and sentimentality packing.
What is left is a profound sense of holiness, an overwhelming
current of love, a reverence for all things so deep that the
visiting kings (and shepherds before them) knelt, and a poverty
that shimmers with prayer.
The story sits uncomfortably in our world. Possessions, money,
standing, and self-aggrandisement beckon insidiously, but are
ultimately empty, and can never bring the peace and joy of which
the angelic host sing in the Christmas story. The violence of
Herod, the magnificence of the kings, and the brutality of
dictators are empty and doomed.
A visit to the stable shakes our foundations to the core. Old
values are overturned, and new, life-enhancing, spiritually
enriching ones take their place. We are no longer driven by greed,
lust, money, and the will to power, but by compassion, respect, and
Gregory the Great puts it succinctly in his homily for the
Epiphany, written some 1400 years ago. "Our country is a heaven,
and when we have once known Jesus, we can never reach it by
returning the way we walked before knowing him. We must seek that
heavenly fatherland . . . by contempt of the things which are
Matthew's conclusion is not a bathetic and disappointing end to
a grand drama. It is his spiritual punchline. The kings saw the
Christ "and returned to their own country by another way".
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in