Wednesday, January 6, 2016


There is an old tradition of blessing the threshold of the house on Epiphany. The door is chalked with crosses, numbers, and the letters C,M, and B. The numbers represent the year. The letters serve a dual meaning: the initials of the three kings (Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar) and the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house). I find it odd that the wise men are associated with blessing the home, when they are such transitory figures. Yet their story makes sense in the context of welcoming visitors.
The magi are mysterious figures, wrapped in legend. The number of men is not stated, although many settle on 3-14. Their origins range from Syria to China. Were they Zoroastrian priests, Asian kings, Yemeni academics? Did they know anything of Jewish prophecy or culture? What were they expecting to find?
Marco Polo claimed that the men came from and returned to the city of Saba, where in the 1270s he visited their tombs and incorruptible bodies. The 14th century tale says there were three kings who hailed from India, Persia, and Chaldea. They travelled individually, meeting up in Jerusalem before going to Bethlehem together. They returned to India together and built a church. They died at the same time. Years later, St. Helena recovered their bodies and moved them to Constantinople. In the sixth century, Emperor Mauricus moved them to Milan. Then, in the 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick gifted the relics to the Archbishop of Cologne for his aid squashing a rebellion in Milan. In 1864, the skeletons of three men were indeed found in the reliquary of the Cologne cathedral: a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. 
Even though the Bible never says, most people do associate the wise men with the rule of three: three ages of man, three regions of the East, three cultures, three gifts.  Tradition, legend, and art represent Casper as the eldest, an Indian scholar and the giver of gold. Melchior is middle-aged, an Arab, and the giver of frankincense. Balthazar is the youngest, from Saba in south Yemen (sometimes he is represented as coming from Africa), and the giver of myrrh. Origen notes that the gifts are “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” Or as the carol notes, “King and God and sacrifice.” The association with kings and gold is obvious. Frankincense is incense used in religious offerings, and myrrh is an embalming oil. Like the givers, the gifts are left to historical speculation.
The gifts, and the men’s innate ability to recognize the Christ Child for who he is, make the legend of the magi more about prophecy, worship, and foreshadowing than about long travel and visitation. But culturally, they are still associated with journey, following yonder star night after night through several countries. And there is a darkness to their story too: shadowy pasts, divination and astrology, bringing a newborn baby embalming oils. Think “We Three Kings” and “Journey of the Magi.” After such a mystery-ridden, grueling journey through the desert of the Middle East and the sands of time, these men should be welcome to rest at our thresholds.

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 kiking 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.

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