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The Three Wise Men are not just a fairy tale

The Wise Men’s journey reflects on our Christian journey too

By on Friday, 6 January 2012

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in a painting in the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia    CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in a painting in the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany – despite my parish priest telling us it is just the First Friday of the month (true) and that the Epiphany will be celebrated this Sunday instead. So I was glad to read from the Rome Reports News Agency the Holy Father’s own short homily about the Three Wise Men, preached in 2005 at the World Youth Day in Cologne. The Pope had also prayed at the tomb of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral, where tradition has it that their bones were laid.

People who are keen on facts and documentation alone can be dismissive of tradition: the ancient and venerable oral memory of events that have taken place in the distant past which is handed down through the centuries. We Catholics have a reverence for tradition as one of the pillars supporting our faith. So we don’t think the Three Wise Men are just a happy fairy tale to provide colourful parts in children’s Nativity plays; they are a beautiful part of this tradition and it annoys me when people say “Where’s the proof?”

Anyway, in his homily the Pope didn’t question the story; he concentrated on the purpose of the Wise Men’s journey and how it reflects our Christian journey too. “It was as though they had always been waiting for that star. It was as if the journey had always been a part of their destiny, and was finally about to begin” he said; it reminds us that our faith is full of mystery and that a divine destiny awaits us as we fulfil (stumblingly) the purpose of our lives. Poets like Yeats and T S Eliot have been inspired by the journey of the Magi and artists’ depictions of the event are one of the staples of Christmas cards.

As to facts: in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna you can see a wonderful mosaic of the Three Wise Men in traditional Persian dress and carrying their gifts, along with their names above: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These mosaics were completed ca.565 AD – over 1500 years ago. OK; this was still a few hundred years after the birth of Christ as narrated in the Gospels – but “tradition has it that…”

  • David Lindsay

    Unable to attend the Extraordinary Form today, I have missed the Epiphany for the third time running, but only the third time in my life.

    There are, however, those in England who will still be keeping it on the same day as the Pope. In the Church of England. Quite a senior member of which once asked me in all seriousness whether or not we were still keeping Christmas Day on 25th December rather than moving it to the nearest Sunday.

    We had rather hoped for a reversal when Archbishop Nichols was installed on the real Ascension Day. So, where is it? Meanwhile, liberals like ecumenism. Let them do the ecumenical thing by doing the Ultramontane thing, restoring the Epiphany and Ascension Day, and with them Corpus Christi, to their proper days, as kept both by our separated brethren and by our Holy Father.

  • Oconnord

    “it annoys me when people say “Where’s the proof?”
    Those pesky people who ask for evidence, proof and facts rather than a “Truth”.
    Some of them even have the audacity to insist that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, Well I’m off the feed the dragon in my garage before using my telescope to look at the teapot orbiting Saturn.

  • Tokyo Pat

    Prove to me that you are an actual human being–that the words I read here on the computer screen weren’t typed out by my computer.  ;-)

  • Oconnord

    Follow the white rabbit Neo!

  • Anonymous

    “We Catholics have a reverence for tradition as one of the pillars supporting our faith. So we don’t think the Three Wise Men are just a happy fairy tale to provide colourful parts in children’s Nativity plays; they are a beautiful part of this tradition and it annoys me when people say “Where’s the proof?”## There is a difference between these, OTOH:1. That the *Magoi* of Matthew 2 were three in number2. That there were 3 nails used in the Crucifixion (4 according to some)3. That St.Michael the Archangel appeared at Monte Gargano in 4904. Jesus was born in a cave &, OTO:1. The tradition of the Church is a means by which the 27 writings that comprise the canon of the NT have been preserved in the Church as sacred & inspired2. the Perpetual Virginity of the BVM3. the lawfulness of Baptism by sprinkling Some Traditions are part and parcel of the Faith; some traditions are popular interpretations of the Biblical text (the number of the Magi & their identoification as kings, which rests on a Christological interpretation of Psalm 72); Santa Befana, a personification of Epiphanytide, is a traditional character in Italy. The many stories about Saints in France fighting dragons were traditions; the notion that St. Peter sent St Denis, & the deacons Rusticus & Eleutherius, to preach the Gospel in France is another; and is suspicious on several grounds. There are traditions that St. Joseph of Arimathea, St. Philip (the Deacon, IIRC), St. Paul, & Jesus Himself all came to England; as well as the one about St. Lucius, King of Britain c.156. These merge with the idea such as that that Sheaf Shielding was born in the Ark during the Flood, or that a Greek prince Gathelos & Scota his wife, daughter of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, are the ancestors of the Scottish people. That stories are traditions does not mean they all have the same function, nor that they are true if taken as relations of events in the external world.  Those Christian traditions, some of which cannot possibly be true as they stand, & Tradition, are not quite the same kind of thing; one is much more theologically important than the other. Church Tradition is like a corporate memory, and provides a context for the Church’s corporate Act of Faith as well as for the individual’s believing – traditions do not, though they may often echo what the faithful have in fact believed about matters relating to the Faith. The season of Epiphany, & its Italian personification are related to the Faith in different ways.   If we do not examine popular traditions critically, there is a danger of canonising folk religion as though it were part of the Gospel; and if that happens, it is easy for the Gospel to be replaced by folk religion – & that can lead to Christo-paganism. If the blood of St. Januarius of Naples is no such thing, we should not dignify it by believing that it is. If faith in Christ accommodates falsehoods and truths with indifference to the difference between them, why preach it ? 

  • Oconnord

    Surely we all follow our Christo-paganist beliefs. Even in catholic belief worship is expressed in hugely different ways. A Mexican catholic has no problems with the “Les Muertos” festivals even though an Irish catholic might find it macabre. As an atheist I will pick and discard what I want from religious thinking. 

    Societies last because their ethos lends to survival, the idea that morals only exist under certain religious rules is idiotic at best. If that were the case we’d all be under one banner. Anyone not following those rules would have died out. 

  • Aaron

    A Mexican Catholic who celebrates The Day of the Dead in the glory of its paganistic origins is a dissenting Catholic, and perhaps synonymous with Christo-paganism. However, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is celebrated in light of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls day, and if one were to pray for the souls in purgatory in a fashion that incorporates some cultural elements, that is fine. But true, there are some that take it too far, and miss the forest for the trees.

    Picking and discarding what you want from authoritative teaching is practically the norm outside Catholic faith and morals. In fact Thales of Miletus, one of the first philosophers of the Western world, would observe many societies with differing traditions who seemingly pick and choose whatever they want to fit their own needs. We can be glad that the School of Athens taught otherwise then. Jesus taught the same too, and the Catholic Church preserved and built upon such teachings (philosophy and revelation, known as “faith and reason”) even ’til the late Middle Ages.

    Interesting that you note that anyone who doesn’t follow the rules of society would die out. For the first 300 years of its life, Christianity was totally against social norms, which is why they were continuously and ruthlessly persecuted. Somehow, it survived the massacre. It would also survive the tribal invasions from the West for several hundred years, and go on to help facilitate kingdoms for many more.

    If societies last because their ethos lends to survival, you’ll be pretty glad Christianity is here. The cultural invasions of the 21st century look very much like the end of Rome. We’ll be here to pick up the pieces, as Christ instructs us to in faith and love.

  • Anonymous

    “Surely we all follow our Christo-paganist beliefs.”

    ## Not really. Christo-paganism – at least as I’ve seen the term used – has a fairly precise referent: syncretistic folk religion, such as that of the Amerindians. This is not quite the same thing as the difference between what Christians profess, & how they live. Christo-paganism is a form of the problem of incomplete conversion that any Christian has to live with & overcome. That is not *quite* the same as Christo-paganism – to call someone torn between loyalty to the Gospel & his own sinfulness a Christo-pagan may be true theologically; but semantically, it would be confusing to call such a person a Christo-pagan; the word already has an intelligible meaning and set of referents of the same kind; to add a different kind of referent, when words such as “worldly”, “imperfect” or “half-converted” are already available as descriptors of such a  state, leads to impovdrishment of language & meaning.

    “As an atheist I will pick and discard what I want from religious thinking.”

    ## As do Christians – but at a different level. 

  • David Armitage

    Luke’s gospel isn’t the Daily Mail. Instead of trying to fathom out whether the Three wise men were kings magi or what have you, as substantive as the D Day landings, think about what Luke is telling us, and what literary device he is using. Midrash. Therein lies his truth.