I must admit that the traditional title of “Wise Men” does little to predispose me toward Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. It must be the effect of our modern-day “wise men”—philosophers who play with words and shy away from the riskier work of establishing conclusions; deconstructors of language and its meaningfulness; theologians who think it is daring to test the limits of what a Christian may disbelieve; Brave New World ethicists who watched too much “Star Trek” in their youth and are about to bravely go where no man has gone before.
These are not only unreliable guides to the Ultimate Reality, but unwilling ones as well. They are the kind of people who drivel on about how the journey is what matters, and not arriving at journey’s end.
I can imagine how the biblical wandering Wise Men—weary, camel-sore, far from home, perhaps stunned or dismayed by the strange customs and outlandish habits of the peoples whose lands they crossed— would have reacted to the idea that the goal they had spent possibly years pursuing mattered little or nothing next to the learning experience they had gained by their travels. But it is hard to imagine a modern retelling of the Wise Men’s story that would avoid the skeptical temptation to deprive them of their journey’s end, or to present the Holy Family huddled in the stable as either a tremendous letdown or an object lesson in the need for better sex education.
So much for our modern wise men. The truly wise, as always, are not eager to claim the title. Certainly they seldom grab headlines, and do not often reach the heights of academic or any other form of power.
But the Three Wise Men of the Epiphany are given other descriptive titles. They are known as Magi or Magicians, seeking a kind of knowledge into the causes or reasons for things. Such seekers have historically been tempted by a desire for illicit power or a share in occult knowledge. We think of Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor, of Macbeth on the heath, of Faust—most of the examples that come to mind are not edifying.
These men from the East, we are told, are better understood as astrologers, men who looked to the patterns and recurrences and unexpected phenomena of the heavenly bodies to reveal not principally the laws of science but tidings of great events.
This is foreign to our post-Enlightenment understanding of scientific exploration. Even astrophysicists who write an occasional non-scholarly article proving or disproving God based on the latest theories of black holes or expanding or contracting universes do not stargaze in the way that the ancients did. Professionally, they seek to explain how things work more than to have the purpose of things explained to them.
The Magi were also known as the Three Kings, and that, too, is a puzzlement, however modestly we interpret their rank. Were they heads of neighboring little satrapies, under the rule of bigger guns? Or did they only meet many miles from their starting points, drawn along separate radii toward the still point of the world in Bethlehem?
Were they kings the way Saudis are sheiks, with those who claim kinship with the ruling house exercising headship over an extended family or tribe? Were they, in other words, working kings, weighed down by a ruler’s burdens and threatened by court intrigues (and if so, how could they get away with such a lengthy leave of absence)? Or were they merely cultivated men of leisure?
All of the titles of this mysterious trio are suggestive, yet separately and together they confuse us. We grasp the exotic details, but know so little of what lay in the minds and hearts and souls of these aliens in the land of Israel.
I can only attempt to grope my way back to these men, across almost 20 centuries, by imagining what an aging pagan world really meant. We are too quick to identify paganism simply with immorality, with what we would call a post-Christian “lifestyle.” To religious people, paganism predominantly means ACT—UP and condoms in the high schools, Madonna and drugs and pornography. We trace a line back from 2 Live Crew to Caligula.
There’s much in this. Excessive luxury, voyeuristic brutality, and widespread skepticism propagated themselves in the first-century Mediterranean world. Many people reacted with disgust to the decline in morals, the debasing of family ties, and the appetite for cruelty fed, for example, by gladiatorial contests.
The chief difference between then and now lies in the alternatives available to the dissenters. Most of the ancients could not “go back” to the beliefs of their fathers for inspiration and refreshment, for even before the moral collapse of paganism most serious thinkers had been unable to carry the pantheons of gods along with them on their intellectual journeying toward an understanding of man’s place in the world, unless allegorically. Stoicism fed the minds and wills of some, mystery cults the imaginations of others. Perhaps most well-meaning people were left empty, though actively seeking or passively awaiting release from their emptiness.
So, at least, it would appear from the swift spread of the Gospel after Jesus’ death and resurrection. A hungry audience was ready for something—though not just anything—to fill mind and heart and soul.
The malaise of paganism had penetrated at least as far as the southern and eastern boundaries of the Empire. The Wise Men were surely such seekers. The avidity of their desire for a Truth that would not deceive or pervert is attested to by the perseverance that led them, first among the gentiles, to the feet of Jesus. They hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and they had their fill; they mourned, and were comforted; they were single-hearted and they saw God.
We know very little about these three pilgrims. Mostly, we know that they sought something, and found it in Jesus. I think they must have sought that something not just sincerely but almost desperately, or else this cultured, cosmopolitan trio would not have seen the answer to their prayers in the poor, provincial faces of the family taking refuge in the stable.