The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”


Photo by Paul Stewart.

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Muhammad, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.