The three magi and I go back a ways. They form the center of one of my earliest coherent childhood memories. I couldn’t have been much older than five and was afraid that I would die. I was shivering and sweating beneath a simple red, white, and blue quilt my grandmother had made commemorating the bicentennial and my birth. It was dark and the world had contracted to the mattress and the wall the bed was pushed up against. Then that world drifted away from me and I found myself curled up on desert sand, three men standing around a fire in the distance. I couldn’t see them clearly, but I had a clear sense that they could see me. I knew they were the three magi, though I couldn’t say why. One of them directed his attention (though not his face) to me and told me clearly not to worry, that I would see them more clearly before I died, but that was not soon. I was comforted, and drifted in and out of that desert until my fever broke.
The story of the magi acknowledges the shifting spiritual landscape of the axial age. Ethical thought, grounded in reflection, comes increasingly to the fore. It becomes increasingly sensible to ask what it means to be human and to presume that it may be the human realm itself that produces the answer. The Christian message is not exceptional on this point, but it does seem to define a singular point, a point of inflection, around which these ethical concerns take shape. The magi and the animals acknowledge that this inward and anthropocentric turn remains embedded in a wider world of animals and spirits. As witnesses, the animals and magi are bidirectional. They support the ethical enfoldment of the human race and inscribe within that enfoldment a reminder of the wider world that the anthropocentric ethical mode otherwise obscures.
From this persepctive, the Star of Bethlehem represents a cosmic event, of which Christ is one aspect; Christ is the cosmic event manifesting within the human world. This gives the message of Christ cosmic import without inflating the importance of humanity. The praise of humility at the heart of the Christian message helps preserve this dual perspective. The Christian message is one of the vehicles through which humanity can participate in events that far exceed humanity’s scope.
I am reminded of stories from both distance readers and mediums, who when working together tend to receive different viewpoints on a common object, event, or spirit. Taken together, these views define a sense of the whole that allow different readers and mediums to communicate with each other. It is important to emphasize that phrase “sense of the whole” because even taken together, the views do not compose the whole picture. Rather, the views are uneven and overlapping, requiring speculation to see past the points to find an object suggested in outline.
The nativity scene suggests that the welcoming of the Christian message in humanity is mirrored by transformations going on elsewhere in the cosmos, changes that may or may not mirror the ethical transformation of humanity. There are overlapping alien worlds close to us, not only those of the spirits, but those of our fellow creatures.
And it isn’t just the ‘Christian’ message. There are other inflection points around which the cosmic message is received and given human form. The desire to enclose the message entirely within a single tradition reflects a kind of displaced pride. Humility ought to make us aware that the truth of a given tradition reflects one aspect of a more total truth. In order to do honor to that total truth, it is necessary to imagine a horizon in which the truth of our tradition can speak to the truths of other traditions. Traditions, no matter their source, are human affairs and are accompanied by the manifest limitations of human beings. They become more truthful the more fully they share themselves as aspects of a difficult to discern whole.
While there are many symbolic associations that we can bring to the gifts of the magi (frankincense, myrrh, gold), we should not lose sight that these gifts were commodities. Folded into the nativity scene, they indicate the value of the message and are bidirectional witnesses of a sort, too, indicating the horizon of the market. The nativity scene orchestrates home as an origin, but also home as the point to which we return after the trip to the market. As offering, the commodity acquires a sacred dimension and preserves the memory of eternity within creation. The figure of the nativity embodies a new sort of home, in which disparate manifestations of eternity are joined again on earth, in which new relations in eternity are prefigured.
The day set aside in honor of the magi is called the Epiphany and it is on this note that I want to end this brief post, on the enclosure of the nativity that opens to us in the temporal and eternal world, that makes of us petals on the multifoliate rose, encompassed and distinguished, a revelation that includes wizards and witches as much as well-heeled Christians. To stand in this epiphany is not to participate in any tradition, but in the wonder and movement of creation.
By all means, look in, stand in awe, but don’t forget the cosmos at your back, the songs of the stars whirling through the heavens.