‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
The opening lines of ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by the poet T.S.Eliot, lines he took from the English bishop Lancelot Andrewes who lived three centuries previously. The wise men, the Magi, have fascinated people for centuries.
We need to put away our traditional pictures of the Magi, we need to forget the silken robes and the elegant appearance, because if you were like that you’d get robbed no sooner than you were outside the city walls. Instead think of men in traditional arab dress; men used to surviving the elements; men wise to the ways of the crooks and the fraudsters and the knifemen who would relieve them of their possessions and leave them with their throats cut down some back alley; men speaking a string of different languages; men with skin like leather and hands like sandpaper; men constantly alert, constantly watching, missing nothing, always on guard.
These men are troublesome figures, they are much stronger than our Christmas card pictures, they are dangerous for the times they live in because no-one knows who they were, where they were from, or what dangers they might pose.
Centuries later the tradition developed that there were three of them, (the number comes from the description of their gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh), the names given to them were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
To this day they are popular figues in Germany and Austria. Go to towns in the Catholic areas of either country and you will see chalked above the doors of the houses and the shops ‘’C+M+B’ and the year. The inscription is a mark that carol singers have called on the Epiphany, singing the Good News of Jesus’ birth, just as the wise men, Caspar plus Melchior plus Balathazar, carried with them the Good News all those centuries before. The initials of the wise men CMB are also the initials for ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’, the Latin for Christ bless this house. The chalk inscriptions are a reminder of the Good News received by the wise men and also a prayer that the house that remembers the wise men would be a place of blessedness.
The wise men come on the Epiphany, a word meaning ‘light upon’ because it was seen as the day when the light of Christ came to be upon all people. In the past the day had an alternative name ‘The Epiphany or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. This is the key to their part in the story.
The Magi are remembered today not because T.S. Eliot wrote a wonderful poem in which he captures some of the mystery of these strangers, but because the Magi represent us, ourselves, you and me. The Bible up to this point has been about God’s relationship with a particular people, with the people of Abraham, the people of Israel, the Jews. Then this child in Bethlehem is born and the whole story is opened up. The Magi are Gentiles, they are foreigners, they are not part of God’s people, they do not share in God’s promises. But now all this changes, Jesus welcomes all who believe in him, whether Jews or Gentiles. We become one of God’s people not by being born as one but by believing in this Jesus.
The Epiphany is a great day for us because it is the day when we are reminded that we too can be part of God’s plans. The Magi were very far from being God’s people, yet if they are included, then we can be as well. Once meeting with Jesus the Magi were never the same again, the stories that grew up around them presumably came from them telling their story of meeting with Jesus. When we meet with Jesus we are never the same again.
It is a pity that we don’t have the tradition of the Epiphany carol singers here. It would be good to be able to write ‘C+M+B 2006′ above the doors of our houses. It would be a reminder that we in 2006 can meet with the Jesus who was visited by Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, that we can share in the awe and wonder of those who saw Christ. It would be a reminder to us that the past can be present with us. It would be a prayer that the Christ who blessed the lives of the Magi would also bless us.