Crowned: the kings in 12th-14th-century mosaics from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and especially a long journey in. The ways deep, rhe weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in the ‘very deal of winter’ … the these are the difficulties they overcame of a wearisome, riksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came”

Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi was written in 1927, and those first lines are straight from Andrewe’s sermon. For both men that journey was a parable of our own journey to Christ. We are, as Andrewes commented, always coming: “To Christ we cannot travel travel, but weather and way and all must be fair.”

Eliot and Andrewes capture something easily missed in our tendency to sentimentalise the Nativity; the cost of discipleship. Often, maybe too often, we write as though being a Christian is a matter of coming from unbelief to belief, and liking, as we all do, a happy ending to the story, perhaps we are happy to collude, albeit unconsciously, in such a narrative. The Magi, whose coming we celebrate at the Epiphany remind us of a different – and more difficult story.

Once, and still among those locked into an older (but self-consciously ‘modern’) reading of Scripture, it was the fashion (and doubtless still is) to cast doubt upon the story and to read it as a symbol or a sign. But it is clear that the tradition goes back a long way, and a study of the Church Fathers and of the Suriac tradition, gives us no ground for that late nineteenth, mid-twentieth century pride that somehow the “moderns” knew best. Which is not to say that the way the story is commonly portrayed is accurate, either.

Because there were three gifts, we tend, as the icon pictured above does, to assume there were three Magi. Andrewes inherited the tradition, dating back as far as Justin Martyr, that they were from what is now modern Jordan, from Petra. Justin saw them as fuflfilling the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, and he saw in the three youths in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, a foreshadowing of them. As the Psalmist (Psalm 72) said: “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” Origen, citing Numbers 24:17  saw them (hence Andrewes taking the same view) as fulfilling the prophecy of Balaam” “there shall come a Star out of Jacob.”

The evidence suggests that the Early Church attached huge importance to the story of these visitors “from the East;” it is not hard to see why.

Christ came to save the lost sheep, and the evidence that the first Christians assumed that these were the Jews is abundant. Mark quotes Jesus as saying to the Syro-Phonecian woman:

Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s

bread and throw it to the dogs

Despite a lamentable contemporary tendency to read our obessions into it (the idea that Jesus was a racist is dealt with admirable by Dr Ian Paul here), this is another sign of how St Mark shows us that while Our Lord’s mission began with the Jews, it was not confined to them. The Magi serve a similar purpose.

The story of the Magi is significant because of what is tells us, not only about the Magi, but about the Jews.

Wherever the Magi originated – and there is an ancient Syriac text, The Revelation of the Magi which identifies them as being from the land of Shir – they were not Jews. Whether they were “Persians”, or from Petra (and the two are not incompatible), or whether they were descandants of Adam’s third son Seth, they were not among the Chosen People. When Herod consults the Jewish wise men, their system, their logic, their wisdom have nothing to tell him. They believe in a Messiah, but the idea of him being born outside a royal palace has not occurred to them. They are ignorant of him, and will for the most pasrt remain so. Herod is anxious, but they have nothing to tell him.

The Magi, on the other hand, with no Scripture to guide them, and no tradition of a Messiah, show themselves open to whatever God is doing. They do not know the way, but the star guides them; the way is hard; but they take it.

In a theological system that consigned outsiders to eternal condemnation, and where a Samaritan woman could express amazement that a Jew would speak to her, Matthew shows us, as Jesus does, how the Incarnation broke down the dividing wall between cultures. As Paul told the Colossians:

Here there cannot be Greek and circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all

Col. 3:11

But there was, and is, a cost. Like the Magi, the Christian travels a long aand a hard road. And we might, with Eliot’s Magus, wonder iss it a birth or a death? “I had seen birth and death,” he writes, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” Dying to the old Adam is not easy. In Andrewe’s words:

With them it was but ‘we have seen’, ‘we are come’; with us it would have been ‘but we are coming’ at most. Our fashion is to see and see again, before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year …

Andrewes, Christmas Day 1622

Then of course, it will be easier. But maybe even easier in the summer?

They came, and thanks to God, so can we. But will we?