Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. And there’s no evidence that they were kings, more likely mystics or astrologers who were following a star that ancient prophesy held would signal the birth of the Messiah.
When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, asking where to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” King Herod, terrified his reign was about to be overturned, learned from his priests that Bethlehem of Judea had long been prophesied as the birthplace. Sending the wise men to Bethlehem to find the child and “bring me word that I may worship him also,” Herod instead ordered a massacre of all Jewish boys under the age of two who lived in the vicinity. The wise men, though they found the babe and presented him with their gifts, were alerted in a dream not to report back to Herod and returned to their own countries a different way. And Joseph, warned by an angel that Herod was searching for the child to kill him, fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Except for the shining star, this is a dark tale, shrouded in mystery and portents. I think T. S. Eliot’s poem on the subject — written in the haunting voice of one of the magi decades after the journey — perfectly captures all these cross currents of faith and fear.
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.