In Christian iconography, the Magi featured far earlier than the shepherds, the beasts or the stable. For the first centuries of Christianity, they were a source of fascination for believer and open-minded non-believer alike.
To followers of Christ, they represented the gentile convert. After the earliest years of the Church, gentiles made up the bulk of those who came to faith. To the unbiased person of no faith, they symbolised those who might have been early scientists or philosophers, in search of answers to the big questions, willing to go to enormous lengths to find them.
As with so many biblical and religious figures in Britain, interest in the Wise Men has waned. This is largely due to extreme rationalism. By rationalism, I don’t mean a healthy scepticism or legitimate scientific and literary research. I’m thinking of the three children of an unreasonable rationalistic approach who currently distract us with their ‘bad behaviour’: indifference, individualism, and consumerism.
The Three Stooges
Dr Matt Nelson of the Word on Fire Institute mentions two main forms of religious indifference: closed and open. By ‘closed’ indifference to religion he is referring to extreme atheism which not only sees no value in religion but also doesn’t seem to think that there is any point in asking the big philosophical questions. When he talks of ‘open’ indifference, he intends those who just see every belief as the same, and therefore, no belief really matters.
There is no doubt that individualism is the dominant philosophy and way of life in Britain in the twenty-first century. One phrase, which I am sure is well intended but personally I am finding more and more irritating, is, “You must try to be the best version of yourself.” I am not sure what that means. What is the scale of better and best, and where does it come from? Who is the ideal me running about somewhere, when I am an evolving erring human being? If it is about developing talents, to what purpose am I developing them? In the pursuit of so-called happiness?
And then there is consumerism. In the face of climate change awareness and, let’s face it, lack of money, this is perhaps on the decline. But consumerism is about much more than buying things: it is about an attitude which presupposes entitlement and sees not people but goods and services.
The Three Wise Men
The Magi embody the antithesis of these stooges of rationalism. Firstly, they are far from indifferent. They are open to the big questions and look around them with a sense of awe. They are willing to take risks to investigate and pursue their calling. While they come from a tradition which is not Judeo-Christian, they focus in on Judaism and the Messiah who is born from the Jews, and they come to worship him as the true Saviour and revelation of the true God.
For the Magi, answers do not come just from within but also from without. They look upwards and outwards. Hearing the call from something greater than themselves, they set out to find the source of that call.
Recognising God in Jesus, they do not come with a list of demands, but with gifts. In response to love, they offer the most precious gifts they have.
Perhaps there is another reason why we sometimes neglect the Magi these days, even in Christian circles. For many of us, the Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of holiday time and the crawl back to routine. We view the Kings not as mysterious and exotic, but as harbingers of the mundane.
Look again. These men take back from this encounter with Christ a new hope and a new perspective. They start again on a journey back to their own country with ideas and purpose. We can do the same.