The magi are for everyone, whatever your beliefs.
These three figures in the Christmas tradition appear in only one of the four Christian gospels, and even that role in Matthew is sketchy. They are foreigners bringing gifts for the infant Jesus and they return home by a different route to evade Herod. That’s it.
Translations and interpretations of what they brought vary, and even less clear is exactly who these foreigners were supposed to be in the story. They may be kings, wise men, astrologers or, as some have it, Zoroastrian priests from Persia.
This is why the particulars don’t matter much at all: the story is so basic and illuminating that it has captured the imagination of millions in its various retellings. Christian faithful have one view of it, and the more literal vision is that of concrete history. But for those who lean away from that, there is much to be gotten out of this compelling story:
- Some people of discernment—in terms of wisdom, astrology or otherwise—had a sense that something special was going on outside of their ordinary sphere. Maybe they saw a light.
- They travelled a long way to discover what was going on, and having found out, expressed their gratitude humbly and generously.
Again, that’s it. Some may want to think about theology. Others may want to think about other sorts of lights they’ve glimpsed, journeys they’ve made or haven’t made, and about possibilities. Christmas or just winter solstice and New Year, there is no better time to think about possibilities and all the rest.
T.S. Eliot wrote a brief but cinematic poem about the magi. It is written from a believer’s perspective, as the magi suffer twice, once on the journey, once again when they return home and find themselves so spiritually transformed by the experience that they feel like strangers in their own land. This is certainly a Christian view of the holiday, but non-Christians may just as well consider the more general phenomenon of all sorts of enlightenment, sitting between the way you have been and the way you discover you could be or already are. The magi say they would be glad of another death like that.
The Journey of the Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: 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.