A few years ago, I spent Christmas week in Jordan. Like a trip to Israel many years earlier, it brought so much of the Bible to life, mainly because of the landscape: mountains; wilderness; the Dead Sea. One day, during one of those hair-raising jeep trips through the desert, we made a stop in a very remote and silent place, with only a few Bedouin and their camels for company. I felt I could almost see the wise men on their camels edging a little further towards their destination. But another experience was, if anything, even more vivid. It was the walk down into the rose-red city of Petra at night, with only flickering candles to light the way. Looking up and seeing what seemed like a million stars studding the deep, dark blackness of the night sky, again my mind’s eye went to the Magi following that special star, which has found a place in the imagination of all of us over the years. Matthew, the only Gospel writer to talk of the Magi, certainly knew how to tell a story.
I still remember, three or four years ago now, an article that appeared in ‘The Times’ which claimed that the Archbishop of Canterbury had dismissed the story of the three wise men as nothing but ‘legend’. Speaking live on radio, the Archbishop was quoted as saying, ‘Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us they where they came from. It says they are astrologers, wise men, from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that’s all we’re really told.’ Anything else was legend, though the Archbishop did concede that ‘It works quite well as legend.’ Alongside this, he also called into question a literal approach to certain other aspects of the traditional Christmas story. It was, of course, in true journalistic style, presented as the Archbishop calling the Bible into question, and it opened the email floodgates, firstly to the literalists defending the factual accuracy of the scriptures, and secondly, to the secularists to whom all religion is legend in any case. It also provided yet another brickbat to hurl at the Archbishop who, apparently, didn’t believe what he should. Needless to say, as we have come to expect, the reporting of the story was incomplete, sensationalist and, to a large extent, disingenuous. The subtleties of the Archbishop’s responses were lost in the rush to create a good headline.
Rowan Williams’ remark that the story of the wise men ‘…works quite well as legend’ seemed incomprehensible to many. Now, we know that in society generally there is widespread ignorance of the Bible, including, dare I say it, among some churchgoers. A new, realistic sort of scriptural teaching might be able to address this problem – but only in part, because many people have little or no conception of bringing faith into the reading of scripture. Consequently, the one question that has come to obsess people is: Did it really happen? And, of course, that question can be applied to all biblical stories: the Garden of Eden; Abraham; Moses; the Exodus; exile in Babylon; the birth of Jesus, with shepherds and angels; miracles, and so on. The question that fails to get asked, far too often, is: What does the story mean? For doesn’t the history of literature indicate that there is no better way of communicating profound truths than by the telling of a good story, or finding resonance and meaning in a dramatic script, or in a poem?
So what of today’s Gospel and the wise men? The Bible may well have the status of sacred text, while ‘The Times’ does not. But it is not wrong to encourage readers to encounter the Gospels with the same rigour that is routinely applied to secular texts. Indeed, I would argue it is essential if faith is not to become fossilized, domesticated and sentimentalized, as so often happens with the entire biblical story of Christmas. What we really need to ask is: what does Matthew intend to communicate to his audience through this story?
Now, I know we sing ‘We three kings of Orient are.’ But they weren’t really kings. In today’s jargon, they might even be called ‘consultants’! Their expertise was in astrology; they knew the secrets of the stars. Because they could predict the future, those in power listened to them: just look at Herod’s worried interrogation of them. Notoriously, astrologers are still sometimes found close to government. Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, writes in his memoirs that he kept a colour-coded calendar on his desk, highlighted in green for good days, red for bad days, and yellow for ‘iffy’ days, as an aid to remembering when it was propitious or not to move the President from one place to another, or for him to speak in public, or to start negotiations with a foreign power. Apparently, this schedule was fed to him down the phone by none other than Nancy Reagan, whose authority was her personal astrologer. All rather alarming, don’t you think…?
The intellectuals of the ancient world, represented in today’s story by the Magi, dismissed such stuff as superstitious nonsense. For them, astrology was the closest thing they had to science, and they accused those who peddled superstition of exploiting the credulity of people – even if they were monarchs or emperors! We (who, of course, never glance at what the papers say our stars foretell) may well say the same about modern day astrologers – including those shot out of a cannon on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
The Magi of Matthew’s Gospel remain essentially mysterious figures. It seems they are far more equivocal and unsettling characters than those regal men riding their camels across our Christmas cards. There are so many layers of meaning to this story, so many symbols, that it is impossible to do it justice in a few minutes; it is a feast for the imagination. But let me leave you with just one reflection on it: Magi are those who, looking at the night sky, as I did in Jordan, or as you might, wonder what it all means. Most of us in cities don’t spend much of our time looking up into the sky: we suppose we have better things to do. In any case, clouds or light pollution often mar the view. But, if we did look up more, we, too, would surely ask what is being said to us.
The Magi bring their questions, as well as their gifts, to the crib. One of their questions is answered: they find the child they were looking for. But in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (arguably the best commentary you could read on this story), T.S. Eliot suggests they return home with as many questions as they brought with them. Perhaps the biggest question of all was, ‘Were we led all that way for birth or death?’ Their journey, it seems, is not over – and nor is ours. But after the encounter with the Christ child, one thing is for certain: the journey of life can never be the same again. Now, even as we return to our own familiar territory, and to normal life, as January takes hold, we take a different route – just like the Magi.