Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star at its rising.
I have always loved Christmas. Loved it. Is it the mischievous child’s grace period? Amongst other things, that was what it symbolised to me growing up. It felt intoxicating to wake up on Christmas morning and know it was going to be virtually impossible to get in trouble. As the cynicism of adolescence sullenly shrugged scales from my eyes and those of my brothers, there was an inevitable dropping off of jollity and unbridled merrymaking. Well, that was the outward performance but inwardly I still craved the sparkling of something otherworldly, mysterious and magical. I remember well sitting awestruck in worshipful admiration of the Christmas tree, inhaling its piney aroma, my nose seizing on the spicy punch of the sap. Luxuriating in the multicoloured tinsel and baubles, savouring the pulse and fade of the fairy lights. And of course, when the time came, being delirious with anticipation of gift giving and receiving. A moment of magic at the end of the year. Ultimately I was irrevocably seduced by that magic and have stayed loyal ever since because of my faith in the pageantry and symbolism of Christmas. And where does that all begin? With the Nativity.
If magic is simply an illusion we choose to believe is true then I think it expresses a deep desire to invest in the fantastical, to place one foot in the unknown. The word magic has come to us from magi which is what the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus were called. Also known as the three kings (of Arabia, Persia and India – Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, respectively), three visitors from afar, each one a magus, or what we would now call an astronomer, then ascribed with the more astrological gift of reading the stars, hence their attributed wisdom. They followed a star that rose at the birth of Jesus and led them to his hostel in Bethlehem, an outhouse for sheltering livestock, doubtless full of the pungent smells of the cattleshed. They brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh to represent Kingship over man, Deity in the next life and Mortality in this one. Before reaching Jesus, they had an audience in Jerusalem with Herod, the Roman given the title King of the Jews by the occupying power. He requested they return to him upon leaving the infant messiah to share details of his whereabouts so he might be able to swiftly dispose of the usurper in his midst. The magi subsequently dreamed of Herod’s ill intent and chose an alternative route back to their homelands. Herod therefore failed to find Jesus and in his desperation ordered what became known as the Massacre of the Innocents, namely the slaughter of all the newborn babes in the vicinity of Bethlehem. So, the Magi were smart. They saved both Jesus and their own skins.
According to the Gospel of St. Luke, shepherds were also part of the Nativity story. These humble sheep farmers were startled by the apparition of an angel of God who exhorted them to travel to Bethlehem to honour the birth of God’s son, the messiah. I suppose they were being sent to bear witness as representatives of the common people. Shepherds weren’t that highly thought of in Jesus’ day but Luke was writing under the influence of Greco-Roman culture in which shepherds were symbolic of pastoral harmony, the guardians of the terrain between the natural and the divine. The shepherds were also stargazers and weathermen, looking for signs and omens to be better able caretake their flock. As a storytelling device they anticipate Jesus’ subsequent status as the shepherd of mankind and the ‘lamb of God’. If we merge the two gospel Nativity stories we have a heady mix of vulnerability and power, of heaven and earth, of kings and servants and of Light and of Dark. I know I’m meant to reflect on the Nativity and conclude Jesus is king or Faith is king, but for me it’s the story. The story is king.
What remnants from the story do we still cling to, if any? The idea of making a place at your table for the wandering, the lost, the stranded, the unwelcome? Providing shelter for the exhausted, the beaten, the unloved, the unwashed? Sharing a roof with the high and the low, the great and the good, the weak and the strong? Embracing real humility to truly respect and honour someone other than ourselves? Recognising the redemptive power of a child? The undeniable light of innocence? Offering refuge from injustice, pointing the way to safety, fostering a place in our hearts of non-judgement, of pure accommodation – can we do it? Do we do it? There’s no end to the cynicism surrounding the materialisation of Christmas, the gratuitous spending and consumerism, the commodification of ‘Christmas spirit’, so there’s no harm in reminding ourselves that a gift is a symbol all of its own. Nowadays we tend to think of gifts in the most literal sense, a present wrapped in nice paper, an indulgence – something to be given just because. I prefer to think of gifts in the more abstract sense. How do you describe the gift to a 7-year-old of knowing you will not get in trouble, that the rulebook has been thrown out, an amnesty declared? What price the gift of magic? The illusion of peace? Can you give someone forgiveness? Forbearance? Regret? Contrition? Or my old favourites – love, honesty and gratitude?
This time a year ago I didn’t know which way I was pointing. I was all at sea and greatly troubled by it. So I did what the Magi did. And I did what the shepherds did. I watched the skies and waited to see whether a star would rise or an angel appear. While I was waiting I began to eliminate the points on the compass that seemed to continually lead me to places of discontent and uncertainty. I suppose I was trying to find my own True North. Was there a way to get back on course? I eschewed panic and impulse and brought my focus to old Capricornian instincts of putting one foot safely in front of the other. Seek solid ground. Become a fixed point and get your bearings. Begin the journey again. Not long into the journey a very bright star rose in the night sky – my wife told me we were expecting a baby. The journey suddenly took on greater significance. It became a pilgrimage. It was no longer merely an existential crisis, it was now a clear and unambiguous challenge to arrive at my destination in a reconciled state. Unite the warring factions. Sit down with my dissolute selves and have them forgive each other and realign. Following the example of the Magi, in the face of possible bloodshed, don’t retread old paths – find a new way home.
And so this is Christmas and an angel has appeared and is one of us and we are truly grateful. I may not be much less lost than I was before but I have a new travelling companion who makes my heart sing and my soul rejoice. If that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is. It’s magic.
For a musical, and much more succinct and poetic rendering of the Nativity story please click here. Happy Christmas!