BY ELIZABETH McKENZIE
Packing up the Christmas decorations is a desultory task. After their all too brief performance dancing and glittering on our ‘living’ Christmas tree (keeping pace with the steady growth of the grandchildren!) the tree baubles are stowed in their allotted box for yet another year.
My mother never took down the Crib before February 2 on the basis that if the Magi didn’t arrive until January 6, they needed a few weeks to catch their breath before disappearing in the general direction of the Orient. But the surface our Crib has occupied for the past month or so is needed, now that everyday domesticity has resumed, so the Crib joins the baubles in the depths of the ‘Christmas cupboard’.
As I concertina the Christmas cards into a recyclable pile, I mourn the decreasing number of cards depicting the Nativity scene. But this year I noticed what I think is a growing trend. Most of the ‘religious’ cards we received were images of the Three Wise Men.
It was an inspired marketing move on the part of St Francis to include them in his original Nativity scene. Their presence adds colour and excitement and movement to what might have become a static event in the stable in Bethlehem after the Angels had departed.
The Three Wise Men are on a mission, following a star to their destination. Matthew leaves us in no doubt that they came to adore a ‘king’ and their gifts were gifts suitable for royalty. Finding their ‘king’ in a stable and not a palace evidently did not deter them, for we are told that they fell to their knees – an acknowledgement of his divinity - and paid him homage. (Actually Matthew doesn’t mention how many wise men there were – perhaps there were several and maybe they brought a caravan of gold, frankincense and myrrh!)
Everything about the Three Wise Men is exotic. Their alternative title, the Magi, carries connotations of oriental mysteries, ‘esoteric knowledge of alchemy and astrology’ which surely fired the imagination of the medieval mind sunk in the dreariness and darkness of the bleak Northern European winter.
Their sudden appearance and disappearance in the narrative is mysterious. Even by today’s standards of gift giving, their gifts seem extravagant. Gold remains a precious metal and a gift of almost anything made of it is liable to generate a credit card crisis!
Incense is still associated with esoteric rituals associated with otherworldly ceremonies and myrrh is a rich, healing and rather expensive unguent. The names they subsequently acquire Balthasar, Melchior and Gasper, have a quixotic ring, drawing us into a cultural landscape which challenges our own more mundane experiences.
As I drop my little cache of Christmas cards into the recycle bin, it strikes me that much of the wonder and mystery of the Three Wise Men has dissipated. But perhaps there is a deeper meaning in the trend of TWM Christmas cards.
In the Christian tradition, the appearance of the Magi is celebrated as the Epiphany, the revelation of the Incarnation to non-Jewish people, the Good News that salvation is now available to everyone not just the Chosen People of the Old (or even the New) Testament.
Perhaps it is time for an extended Epiphany event. The gift we have to offer to our often bewildered and troubled society, not just at Christmas but on a day to day basis, is the simple gift of ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. The Three Wise Men may have disappeared without a trace, but their significance in our own everyday mission has not.
Elizabeth McKenzie is editor of the Tinteán magazine of the Australian Irish Heritage Network.
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