“When they [the Seekers of Wisdom (Magi)] saw the star rising in the East, they jumped with joy , and with glad hearts they followed until the star stopped and rested over the place where the child was. They went into the house and saw the child and his mother, Bitter Tears (Mary) . As soon as they saw the child, they bowed down to honour him. Then they opened their bundles and gifted him with gold, sweet-smelling incense, and bitter ointment of myrhh”
Matthew 2: 10 & 11, First Nations Version)
It can be hard to see this part of the nativity story with fresh eyes. It is hard to see past a school nativity play: three figures in dressing gowns and cardboard crowns kneeling to offer their paper-mache gifts to the doll in the cardboard-box-manger on the assembly hall stage, while a small child in a shiny star-shaped costume waves at granny in the audience. It is hard to see the version of the story where the Magi weren’t actually part of the tableau on the night of Jesus’ birth along with the shepherds and the animals in the stable. Hard to remember they arrived some time after that, with gifts that were extravagant and odd.
Yet those three figures in cardboards crowns…they have something to show us, some treasures to share which possibly surpass their gifts for the infant Jesus. Can we rediscover them as real people, not broad characterisations or archetypes.
The wise men, or Magi – or even better, the Seekers of Wisdom – are mysterious. Mentioned briefly in just one of the gospels, we don’t know much about them. We don’t know how many of them there actually were, although we do know how many gifts they brought. But we do know they came from the East, which is non-specific enough to take in a vast geographical area. We know the star they had seen was of sufficient significance for these seekers of wisdom to leave everything, and undertake a long and arduous journey, in the hope that the star would indeed lead them to the newborn King of the Jews to honour him. And we know that the seekers of wisdom were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to take a different way home, and these mystics and scholars, who had seen fit to follow a star across continents, were wise enough to pay heed to the dream, no doubt saving Jesus and his parents from Herod’s deadly clutches. They seemed to be living lives of epic proportions.
So I wonder what was going through the minds of those ancient seekers of wisdom when they handed over their priceless and prophetic gifts to this ordinary-looking little family, living in an ordinary village, rather than in the courts of the great in Jerusalem? I wonder if, as they stood outside the normal little house where Jesus now lived with his mother and father, for a moment they looked doubtfully at their gifts and wondered if they’d got it right?
What we do know is they were convinced – they had followed the wisdom of their tradition and employed all of their great learning, and the star had been the final sign leading to this surprising place. “As soon as they saw the child , they bowed down to honour him” – they knew who they had found, and gave their blessings reverently and gladly.
The Seekers of Wisdom were not versed in traditional baby gifts it seems. They arrived at the door of Mary and Joseph with gold – a traditional kingly gift, but an unusual one for the son of an ordinary carpenter. They brought frankincense, which would traditionally be burned to honour a deity. Again, an unusual choice for a child with such humble beginnings. And they also brought myrrh. This fragrant spice was often used in spice mixtures for the embalming of bodies. There’s a sense of it being akin to giving a burial plot as a new baby gift. I wonder if Mary and Joseph looked at these valuable but possibly baffling gifts with a growing sense of dismay. These are deeply symbolic gifts, and not all of what they symbolised would have been comforting.
What do we do when a gift is both wonderful and daunting? What do we do when a blessing is not quite what we expected, or carries a responsibility we had not anticipated?
This poem tries to capture what Mary may have thought after the Seekers of Wisdom left, and she and Joseph were contemplating at the gifts they’d left behind.
My cup was filled long ago, and I did not want more
I am dazzled by the new gleaming
our small home is suffused with fresh fragrance
and the footprints of pilgrims from a distant land
are still on the threshold
My cup was filled long ago
how do I make room for the promises held by these gifts
if the promises are telling a story
I both delight in and suffer in the hearing?
The footprints of pilgrims from a distant land
are still on the threshold
My cup was filled
help me to travel to places I do not want to go
help me to carry these gifts,
our blessing and our burden,
help me to know your peace fills this overflowing cup
May we be willing to receive the unexpected gifts, and in the receiving may we know the peace of the Prince of Peace who holds all things together.