Bob Schwartz

Tag: magi

Christmas Quiz: What’s Different About This Picture?

If you look closely at the painting above, you may notice something unusual about the adoring Magi.

The painting, Adoration of the Magi, is attributed to Vasco Fernandes (ca. 1480–ca. 1543). I’ve shown it to a number of people this Christmas, who all remarked that it is beautiful, but did not comment on anything else.

Can you see what it is unusual about it? If you know or think you do, don’t look first at the answer below.

 


 

Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau is the first-ever complete English translation of what purports to be a first-person account by the Magi themselves. Written sometime before the fifth century, it is not actually a chronicle by the Magi, but it is a spiritually fascinating addition to the usual Christmas story.

Landau writes:

The Revelation of the Magi, mostly narrated by the Magi in the first person, is a sweeping and imaginative work that begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with the Magi being baptized at the hands of the Apostle Thomas. These Magi are members of an ancient mystical order and reside in a semimythical land called Shir, located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean. The Revelation of the Magi says these individuals are called “Magi” in the language of their country because they pray in silence. The story implies that the name “Magi” is thus a play on the words silence and/or prayer, but that implication does not make sense in any of the most common languages spoken by early Christians. Despite this unsolved mystery, however, this description sharply distinguishes the Magi of this story from any of the most common ancient usages of the term magoi: these Magi are not magicians, astrologers, or even priests of the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism.

These mystics, who live in a mysterious, far-off land, as the Revelation of the Magi depicts its Magi, are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous, so it is very fitting for the Revelation of the Magi to trace the ancestry of the Magi back to such an illustrious founder. The Magi inherited from Seth a prophecy of supreme importance for the world: a star of indescribable brightness will someday appear, heralding the birth of God in human form. Seth himself had learned about this prophecy from his father, Adam, since the star originally had hovered over the Tree of Life, illumining all of Eden, before Adam’s sin caused the star to vanish.

Every month of every year, for thousands of years, the order of the Magi has carried out its ancient rituals in expectation of this star’s arrival. They ascend their country’s most sacred mountain, the Mountain of Victories, and pray in silence at the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s own prophetic books are housed and read by the Magi. Whenever one of the Magi dies, his son or one of his close relatives takes his place, and their order continues through the ages.

All of this lore about the origins of the Magi and their prophecy has been narrated, we are told, by the generation of the Magi that was alive to witness the coming of the star. They have gathered together to ascend the Mountain of Victories, as was their ancient custom, but suddenly the foretold star appears in the heavens. As promised, the star is indescribably bright, so bright that the sun becomes as faint as the daytime moon; yet because the Magi alone are worthy of guarding this prophecy, the star can be seen by no one but them. The star descends to the peak of the mountain and enters the Cave of Treasures, bidding the Magi to come inside. The Magi enter the cave and bow before the star, whose incredible light gradually dissipates to reveal a small, luminous human! This “star-child” reveals to the Magi that he is the Son of God, but—and this is of crucial importance—never calls himself by the familiar names Jesus or Christ. Nor do the Magi themselves ever call him by these names, and the absence of these designations will provide us with a critical clue about the central message of the Revelation of the Magi.

The star-child instructs the Magi to follow it to Jerusalem so that they may witness its birth and participate in the salvation God has planned for the entire world….

The Revelation of the Magi even influenced the way explorers of the New World understood the indigenous cultures they encountered. Two examples will suffice. First, there is the seventeenth-century Augustinian monk Antonio de la Calancha, who studied the Incan culture of Peru. He was impressed by the similarities between Andean traditional religion and Christianity, and he believed that the Apostle Thomas and the Magi must have missionized the region together, just as the Opus Imperfectum indicated. Second, the Franciscan missionary and historian Juan de Torquemada described the belief among some of the Aztecs that the conquistador Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl with recourse to this legend. Just as the Magi had stood atop the Mountain of Victories awaiting the fulfillment of their prophecy, Torquemada notes, so, too, did the Aztecs anxiously await the foretold return of Quetzalcoatl, and were all too willing to accept Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl when Spanish ships appeared off the Mexican coast.

And that is the story of how, in this painting, one of the Magi appears as a Native American.

Revelation of the Magi

Magi

An excerpt from the story of the magi as told by the magi:

And (something) like the hand of a small person drew near in our eyes from the pillar and the star, at which we could not look, and it comforted us. And we saw the star enter the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, and the cave shone beyond measure. And a humble and kind voice made itself heard by us, which called out and said to us: “Enter inside without doubt, in love, and see a great and amazing vision.” And we were encouraged and comforted by the message of the voice. And we entered, being afraid, and we bowed our knees at the mouth of the cave because of the very abundance of the light. And when we rose at its command, we lifted our eyes and saw that light, which is unspeakable by the mouth of human beings.

And when it had concentrated itself, it appeared to us in the bodily form of a small and humble human, and he said to us: “Peace to you, sons of my hidden mysteries.” And again, we were astonished by the vision, and he said to us: “Do not doubt the vision that you have seen, that there has appeared to you that ineffable light of the voice of the hidden Father of heavenly majesty.”

Revelation of the Magi 12:4-13:1

Revelation of the Magi is written as a first-person account of the visit of the Wise Men, though that is unlikely. The available text is written in Syriac, with the story originating possibly as early as the 3rd century. Long forgotten, an English translation of it can now be found in Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau.

The Magi

Journey of the Magi
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
T.S. Eliot

‘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.