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Returning by another way

04 January 2013

David Bryant considers the Magi in all their accumulated splendour


Another way: Rogier van der Weyden,The Magi Have a Vision of the Child

Another way: Rogier van der Weyden,The Magi Have a Vision of the Child

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 peace.

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 seen."

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 Yorkshire.

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