The last weekday of the Christmas holidays. The new term begins on Monday, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when Christians remember the coming of the Magi.
T.S. Eliot wrote of the Magi’s journey,
‘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.’
They are lines he took from the English bishop Lancelot Andrewes who lived three centuries previously.
The wise men, the Magi, have fascinated people for centuries. They are troublesome figures because 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 fro the description of their gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh), the names given to them were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
The Magi remain popular figures in Germany and Austria. In the towns in the Catholic areas of either country, chalked above the doors of the houses and the shops there will be the letter, ‘’C+M+B’ and the year. The inscription is a mark that carol singers have called on the Epiphany, singing of Jesus’ birth, just as the wise men, Caspar plus Melchior plus Balathazar, carried with them the story 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 story received by the wise men and also an invocation that the house that remembers the wise men will be a place of blessedness.
The coming of the Magi is called 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.
The Magi are remembered 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 foreigners. The Bible story 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 foreign, they are alien; they are not part of the chosen people, they do not share in God’s promises. But now all this changes, Jesus welcomes all people, the outcasts, the marginalised, the heretics – and the foreigners.