The Gospel reading yesterday – the second Sunday of Christmas, and the feast of the Epiphany – came from Matthew and tells of the wise men’s search for, and finding, of the infant king of the Jews.
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’
When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
It told of wise men, number unspecified, and not kings. Later tellings of the Christmas story are rather more specific! ‘Was surely three of them, and definitely they were kings!’
In nativity plays – perhaps for reasons of casting, perhaps for gender inclusivity there are wise women with the wise men, or queens with the kings.
Earlier times than ours also played fast and loose with the Bible narrative, and did so with theological purpose. In renaissance paintings it became common for the wise men to be depicted as kings and three, but one was old, one notably young, and the other middle aged; and one was African, one Asian, one European (from the three continents known in more ancient times).
In their diversity and their all-encompassing qualities these three men were presented in a way that allowed them to represent each and everyone from ‘the nations’. Their image reminded, taught, that the good news of the Incarnation and the mercy of God was for all of us, i.e. including those we think of as ‘them’ too.
- Who do we exclude from our world view, from ‘us’?
- How – with God’s grace – might we reach out to them, and with them grow in grace?
Detail showing the wise men from the East. Vatican Museum. (c) 2010, Allen Morris.