Photo: Pieter Aertsen, The Adoration of the Magi; c. 1560; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
By Dan Valenti (Jan 4, 2009)
After giving birth to Jesus in a Bethlehem manger, Mary, tended by her ever-faithful husband Joseph, waited with her Son for the hearts and minds of men to be opened to the supreme significance of the Incarnation: a savior, the God-Man, had been born to the world.
The angels, of course, knew, and the shepherds were the first to be told. In the Orient, three kings divined the monumental event that had taken place in the unlikeliest setting. The Magi — to whom tradition gives the names Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar — alighted on a journey to Bethlehem, guided by a star, that they might adore the newborn Messiah. The Church now celebrates this event on the feast of the Epiphany, which is traditionally marked on Jan. 6.
The word "epiphany" means manifestation and alternately, a sudden insight or revelation. Certainly, both definitions would apply to the events swirling around that humble manger more than 2,000 years ago. Through the Magi, Christ was made manifest to the world. Through revelation, the kings grasped the significance of what they were called to witness.
The three wise men play a vital part in this narrative. First, they listened to the voice of heaven in making an arduous journey to Bethlehem. Second, they talked to Herod face to face, inadvertently tipping him off to the birth of Christ. Third, they were not afraid to follow the star. Consequently, they found the Christ Child.
In short, the Magi were indeed "wise" — as writer Anne Tansey put it, "The wise people of the world are on Mary's side of the epic struggle with the Herods of the world. In a sense, they are almost as outnumbered as the three kings from the East were outnumbered by the members of Herod's Court and his henchmen."
What is "Mary's side," and what is "the epic struggle?" The struggle is the battle between good and evil. "Mary's side" seeks to protect the life of her Son against the Herods of the world, who — threatened by perfect goodness — wish to slay the essence of incarnated Love.
The three kings counterbalance the three Herods. Yes, the New Testament speaks of a trio of men who bore that name. The first, Herod the Great, is the one in the Epiphany story. He slaughtered the innocents. His son, Herod Antipas, succeeded him and had Mary's nephew, John the Baptist, beheaded. The third Herod, Herod Agrippa, martyred St. James and imprisoned St. Peter.
Fortunately, Mary's husband, Joseph, and the Magi were good men. They were warned by angels about Herod the Great's treachery. The Wise Men returned to the Orient via another route, not reporting to Herod as the king wanted. Joseph protected his family from the slaughter of the babies by fleeing to Egypt.
These are the men of "Mary's side." They hear the word of God and follow its instruction. Herod hears of a king being born but fails to grasp the significance. He conceives of the Messiah as a rival for the kingship of Judea. He misses the point.
In the Epiphany story, Mary is the protagonist of Love. Herod is the antagonist of hate. The Magi and Joseph are on Mary's side. So are we.