Last week many Christians celebrated the final scene of the Christmas story – the visit of three wise men, or kings, to the newly born child Jesus. The gifts that they brought, gold, frankincense and myrrh, stand for three key things about Jesus himself; royalty, deity and his human death. Today I’d like to reflect on another important theme in the story of the 3 wise men, the theme of “belonging to a group”.
Some of the very first Christian art appears in the catacombs - underground tunnels where Christians hid from persecution by the Roman empire. There are some large wall paintings showing the visit of the three kings. Scholars have puzzled about why this event in the life of Christ should have attracted so much attention. Why was it on the minds of the first generation of Christians? There were surely so many other events in the life of Jesus that could have been portrayed!
A popular explanation for this puzzle is that the three wise men caught the attention of the early Christians because they were “foreigners”. To put it more bluntly, in the context of the turmoil of the early Church, they were gentiles. In other words, they did not belong to the recognised people of God – they had come to know who Jesus was by some other means than being part of an established religious community.
Those who are familiar with the “goings on” of the first generation of Christians will know that this was a burning issue. It seemed that Jesus’s teaching was for everyone without exception – that his life and love were also for everyone without exception. How to accept and assimilate all these newcomers was a big question. Having a huge wall painting of the very first gentiles to come to honour Christ was a strong statement that these people were OK, that they belonged, that they were part of the community of the Church, just as much as those who had always thought of themselves as “the people of God”.
I think there are some other interesting things about the three wise men. Let’s compare them with the shepherds who also came to see the infant Jesus. The shepherds were locals; they were part of the local religious community, they were part of Jesus’ religious community, they were Jews. They were told about the birth by an unmistakable blast of power and beauty from the sky. A host of angels telling you what’s happened and what you have to do about it is about as near as you can get to a direct revelation from God.
The three kings on the other hand, had come a long way from a far country. There’s nothing in the Bible to tell us they had a direct heavenly revelation about Jesus’ birth. It seems they worked it out from their own particular study of the stars.
It’s a moot point how much our study of the natural world can tell us about God. Many people, myself included, would say that exquisite natural beauty, like seeing the moon set behind bare trees early on a winter’s morning, move the heart to prayer and spark a sense of the presence of God. As we know, scientists don’t all come to know God through studying the marvels of the natural world. Prayer and science are two different disciplines. But it looks as if the three wise men did, in some way, start on their long and difficult journey towards Christ as a result of their observations of life according to their own laws and lore.
Most of us would often love to have a blast from the sky, telling us everything we want to know about God, our lives and our destinies. But for most of us God has given us not so much a blast, but a gentle whisper – as gentle as a new-born child. Following him will lead on a surprising and beautiful journey, which will almost certainly include welcoming the “outsider”.