I think that sometimes it’s easy to get lulled into some sort of complacency about things with which we’re familiar, and that a check with reality can be useful.
I live in a community of about 30 people, mostly very elderly and many with serious health conditions. I’m so used to our weekly fire bell tests and the slamming of the fire doors that I note them subconsciously and carry on with what I’m doing. But late on Saturday night, things changed. The alarms rang continuously; I heard the fire-doors slam; I started coughing on the acrid black smoke rolling down the corridor. I moved from complacency to reality.
The problems we encountered getting very frail and elderly people down the stairs, and looking after them; the noise and the mess of the fire engines, the firemen, the paramedics, and the alarms ringing and ringing … I was hit with reality. I’m now seeing the fire drills in a different way!
I think that I’ve viewed the tale of the three Kings in a similar way. I grew up knowing about the Baby, the Shepherds and the Kings. I knew the Kings were wealthy men who wore sumptuous robes, and who travelled from afar bringing wonderful gifts for the new King. Over time, I learned to call them Magi , to recognise that they were wise men, that they came a long way following the star. But it was still a comfortable and familiar story. Two events challenged this complacency…
The first time was when we studied TS Eliot in school. From the first time I heard the opening words of the poem, The Journey of the Magi, I was captured by the sheer physicality experienced by the travellers:
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for such a journey … the ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.
The sort of winters we used to have in the 50s and 60s! And the more we studied the poem, the more I became aware of the real difficulties of that journey:
The camel men cursing … grumbling … running away … wanting their liquor and women… the cities hostile… the towns unfriendly … the villages dirty and charging high prices.
This isn’t a graceful and easy journey across the sand dunes with a focus on Mary and a newborn King. This is a hard, cold, miserable, difficult time. It’s as real as our own lives and experiences.
The poem also has a darkness in it, far removed from the cheerful Nativity plays. In one line, the Magi describe seeing on the horizon: Three trees on the low sky. They haven’t yet met the Baby but unknowingly they already see signs of what was to come. Standing starkly outlined against a darkening sky, the three crosses; the inevitability of the Crucifixion.
Eliot shows The Magi as thinking people, reflective, and suffering in order to do what they think is right: to pay homage to a child whom they know will change the world. For me, this poem brought hard reality to the story and thereby it became more powerful
The second time that reality offered me an insight occurred some 35 years ago in Fuerteventura, at Epiphany. There weren’t so many tourists in those days and visitors and villagers mixed more readily. I was standing at the side of a small road, and suddenly found myself surrounded (pushed aside actually!) by scores of noisy and excited local children.
I looked in the direction they were facing – and there, against the strong light of the low sun, the silhouette of 3 camels coming towards us. Lurching along the narrow road, enormous and splay footed, slowly coming nearer and nearer. And atop the camels – three Kings in glittering crowns and rippling rich jewel coloured robes, throwing handsful of sweets into the crowd.
For a minute or so, as they came alongside, I saw the tawdriness of the crowns and cheapness of the robes, but the kids didn’t. The camels didn’t stop or even slow down: I watched them continue their slow rocking journey to the next village. And for a moment I saw the Wise Men in all their reality: scruffy, tired, on a seemingly endless journey following a star to find a king: the promised King.
If we accept that our own experiences can bring us greater understanding and empathy, we can see that the reality of the hard, messy, and unforgiving journey of the Magi, actually serves to strengthen the story.
These tough men, who unflinchingly trusted in the Star, brought us far more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, they lead us to the Light, to a greater understanding of God’s word, to a Grace beyond comprehension, to wholeness, healing and peace.