Updated: Dec 9, 2019
"O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light."
Most of us are familiar with this refrain from the popular Christmas carol, "We Three Kings." This song has always fascinated me. Its lullaby-like tune belies the bittersweet message in the lyrics. This stanza expresses hope, faith that a star will lead the three exotic astrologers to the epic horoscope.
The imagery of a humble animal stable highlighted by a brilliant star is depicted on many a mantle during the Christian celebration of Advent, the days leading up to Christmas. A smiling baby with arms open in an expression of love, offering a giant hug to the world, is the epicenter of this scene. Surrounding the haloed baby is a menagerie of sheep, oxen, and a donkey.
Each of these animals is symbolic. Sheep: innocent faithful followers, and even the innocent babe who will grow to accept the duty of a sacrificial lamb. Oxen: the burden of labour and responsibility which we all must bear; and a nod to the future profession of the babe, who will become a specialized carpenter, building yoke for the work animals. Donkey: the honour which the humblest creatures and people among us deserves, because when the occasion arises, we may all in our own little ways usher in a better future of hope, as the donkey in the Christmas scene carried the pregnant single mother across dust and dirt and filth to a warm safe place.
Alongside the docile farm animals portrayed in this cozy scene stand rugged, golden, conspicuous creatures, elegant in their tall stance and lifted heads. These three camels are depicted in reigns of red and purple, golden tassels swaying from the rugs that support the royal visitors from distant lands. These magi, the three kings, wise men, the studiers of stars to decipher their hidden meanings, had left their homes of luxury in order to risk their lives. The entourage encountered the pitfalls particular to desert travel in that ancient era. They persisted. They believed their destination would be worth the threat of death.
In many traditions and cultures, Epiphany is the high holiday of the Christmas season. Three Kings Day is heralded with parades, parties, presents; a spirit of jubilation. This day marks the end of a journey. A coming to God; facing fate head on.
Any survivor of C.C.D can recite the gifts that each of the wise men brought to honour the baby in in a crib of hay. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. How fancy, and mysterious, these items seem.
Imagine a baby shower today, and three long-lost rich relatives glide in on Lamborghinis with brightly colored packages filled with these strange baby gifts.
The pretty blue card adorned with sparkling stars and silk ribbons from Great-Uncle Melchior reads:
"Born a king on Bethlehem's plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign."
Any new parent would be equally shocked and psyched to receive this monetary treasure, and also to have their little precious baby be regarded as royalty. Each baby, to a parent, is after all adored as a prince or princess.
Imagine then, the matron of the family, Great-great-grandma Gaspar, glorious in her lush green designer garb, flashes her ever-youthful grin, and procures a globe topped with a great gold bow. Her strong voice surprises the gathered family:
"Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high."
The babe’s mother, who was homeschooled before her unexpected teen pregnancy, and is a member of MENSA, is gracious but yet curious about this gift from the gregarious elder woman. Frankncense would be a good air freshener, at least, after royal diaper changes.
Next, second cousin twice removed Balthasar, whom nobody had been aware was alive on the family tree, bounds forward with a blue bouquet flowing from a bronze chalice. The gift tag reads:
“Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
The new mama, maintaining her polite manner, barely rolled her eyes in response to this goth gift. Every family has a Debbie-Downer, she thinks to herself, and placates her weirdo cousin with thanks. Later she sniffs the myrrh and immediately chokes on the pungent spice. She makes plans to sell it and put the money towards baby Jaycee’s college fund.
In year 1, marked by the birth of a homeless baby, this baby shower may well have played through, with obvious historical difference without anachronistic subtleness.
The traditional meme of rich meets poor as the royal camels approach the starlit farm shelter portrays a lovely sentiment of equality in differences, and the idea that even the lowliest in society are deserving of the sanctity of life and the veneration as a fellow human.
I will not discourage anyone to adjust their pretty Nativity scenes after I drop this factual bombshell. I am not a Grinch trying to smash Christmas. I wish only to provide a slightly adjusted image in the lens of time and research.
Upon further research into the truth behind the myth, I have found the myth to be intact. As “The Mythbusters” would proclaim: it is “plausible.” I find another scenario to also be plausible, and if possible MORE plausible.
The star shining over the now famous baby continued to lead the Three Magi. Their journey was exhaustive and long. They never made it to the manger. They did however manage to send a word of warning to the young family: GET OUT! GO TO EGYPT. For a jealous blowhard high up in politics was murderously ensuring there was no threat to his totalitarian rule. Vengeance against a glorified baby became his wild obsession. Babies throughout the land were slaughtered, lest one of them be the child who would be the “king of kings.”
The Magi knew their personal journeys would be lengthened by the warning they gave, but it was better to be late for the meeting than for the meeting to be met with blood and a dead baby.
When the Magi finally reached the golden child, it was at his house in Egypt. Toddler Jesus was undoubtedly entertained by the strangely fashioned visitors, and their shiny smelly gifts.
Lest you think I have broken the manger on the table tradition, let me share with you what my scene looks like.
The dark cave is warmed by the shared body heat of the lowing cows and bleating sheep, with the intermittent guffaws of the jackass. Above this din is the cry of a new baby and the wail of an innocent teen whose doom, or fate, was sealed when nine months previous she had uttered the words “may it be.” She had a choice. And she chose the scorn of being an unwed teen mother; the threat of a broken marriage; the impending turmoil and pain of poverty.
Joseph is outside, gathering kindle for a fire to cook with, giving the young mother the privacy customary during childbirth.
Mary cries out without the help of her mother. No midwife or neighbours or relatives or gal pals hold her hand, wipe her brow, offer sips of water, or provide encouragement and support as her body tears. Maybe she heard a windy flutter beyond the cave; invisible angels awaiting the passage of a miracle.
And out, miles away, across marshes and hills, deserts and rocky terrain, climb three well-trained camels, with a caravan of Magi and supplies. Undeterred by threats and danger, the Magi ride through the darkness, never losing sight of the light of one star that shines even in the brightest day.
On Three Kings Day, Epiphany, I move my little camel dolls closer and closer to the smiling baby. The shepherds and angels have faded away into the background of the story; their part in the tale has been completed. Now it is the Magi’s time; their turn to honour the child. The riders of desert beasts have reached their destination.
Maybe Joseph helps tie up the camels and builds a shelter for them. Perhaps Mary, pleased to nurture strangers, offers the visitors a meal of the finest ingredients she can collect.
And the child Jesus, smiles, welcoming them with open arms.
PS Jesus was born in July and he is a Cancer. Happy Epiphany!
*This was originally published 5 January, 2019.