They are some of the key supporting players in the story of the Nativity, travelers whose tale has been retold and revised for two millennia. And, like any members of an outstanding supporting cast, the Three Wise Men rarely receive their proper due.
They were, after all, merely shepherds. Or grand noblemen. Or perhaps even kings. And one of the fascinating parts of their legend is that their caste in life is largely irrelevant to their significance.
So as we ponder the event that is being celebrated today by billions of people around the world — the birth of Jesus — perhaps it is time to recognize and honor what is represented by the tale of those who made a long and arduous journey guided solely by a star and their own internal hope. Perhaps it is time to consider whether our modern-day leaders can learn anything from the Magi of lore.
Not that much is truly known about them. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi who visited the Christ child, and over the past 2,000 years or so, theologians have taken the story and run with it.
In Western cultures, the group remains a band of three, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the baby. But in Eastern cultures, they traditionally are depicted as a group of 12, and a recent translation of an ancient text suggests they numbered in the dozens.
The Gospel of Matthew, in fact, makes no mention of their number, but the delivery of three gifts has led over the centuries to an assumption that there were three Magi.
Following the visit, the story goes, the Wise Men returned to their own lands by a different route from which they came, avoiding the homicidal King Herod, who hoped to find and kill the child that threatened his supremacy. This, too, has been open to interpretation, and Gregory the Great surmised, “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”
All of which has had a profound impact on human history. And while we might not understand how many there were or where they came from or where they returned to, regardless of your personal religious beliefs there is some wisdom that can be gathered from the allegory of the Three Wise Men:
• They are not “wise” because they have the answers, but because they search for those answers, seeking out a larger meaning to events that surround them and following a star that they perceived to be a message from God. It is a lesson that goes well beyond religious exploration and can be applied to all facets of the human experience — in order to find, you must be open to looking.
• They seek out something simple and profound, not shiny and grandiose. Drawn to a child who was born in a manger, these travelers are driven by an ideal rather than a bauble, searching for the glory that can be found in everyday life.
• They risk their own safety, despite not necessarily knowing where they are going, and they demonstrate that any journey worth undertaking requires a modicum of faith and a sense of adventure.
• Once they arrive, they pay homage, an act of humility that all too often is lost on modern society. Whether honoring the God you worship or acknowledging a respected elder or teacher, the notion of selfless generosity is regarded by many as quaint and outdated these days.
So, as we consider this extraordinary tale, we hope that political leaders the world over can find in themselves the courage and conviction and willingness to take action that is demonstrated in the story of the Three Wise Men.