A message from Father Nick 94

Looking at the crib (III)

The last figures to be placed in the Crib are our three wise men. Were they kings? The Gospel does not tell us so. Were there three of them? Again, the Gospel does not say, only that they brought three gifts. But the idea of three took root in popular piety, and as centuries passed the wise men acquired names: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar.

In the twelfth century, an age of relic-fervour (if not relic-fever), their supposed remains were transferred from India to Cologne and enshrined in a vast new cathedral. King Otto IV added his own embellishment with a gift of three gold crowns believed to have been originally made for the magi (three crowns feature on the city’s coat of arms to this day). But the wise men’s real importance is that they embody the promises of Hebrew Scripture, summed up in our readings for mass on the feast of the EPIPHANY.

The passage from Matthew’s gospel connects Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents with Pharoah’s killing of the male children in Exodus. (Like Moses, Jesus escapes and will one day lead his people to freedom.) Isaiah 60:1-6 foresees nations being drawn to the light which shines from Jerusalem. He pictures kings with camels and dromedaries bearing their tribute of gold and incense. Psalm 71 also sees kings arriving and falling prostrate in homage to the greatest king of all – as with the borrowed Ox and Ass, Old Testament images add to our understanding.

But the story of the “three” wise men exerts its own powerful appeal. Their learning, their implied sophistication, their search for – and homage to – the truth, strike us as a modern configuration. And although they are said to come “from the east”, they prompt a very western faith response.

In his poem Journey of the Magi, T S Eliot imagines their experience as having unsettled them – what, after all, can they go back to? Similarly, in his novel Helena, Evelyn Waugh imagines Constantine’s mother identifying herself with these distant, privileged latecomers and asking them to be her special patrons. She – and they – and we – are pilgrims from a complicated gentile background.

Writers and artists are drawn to the three wise men. In Rome’s catacomb-paintings and Ravenna’s mosaics we see them hurry forward in single file, wearing their distinctive Phrygian caps and carrying their gifts.

Three wise men in Catacombs of St Priscilla, Rome

But one beautiful image from a later time imagines them in a moment of rest. We have noted this image before, but it does have a special charm. It was sculpted in the twelfth century for the cathedral of Autun in France, and amazingly we even have the name of its sculptor. Among a series of wonderful images, he has carefully carved it for us: Gislebertus hoc fecit. Gislebertus re-creates in stone the story of the three wise men. We see them listening to Herod; presenting their gifts (Jesus, “much intrigued”, tries to open a casket, while one of the wise men takes off his crown in humility and Joseph sits pensively, with his chin in his hand). Most delightfully of all, we see them tucked up together beneath a royal counterpane, dreaming their warning message while an angel gently alerts them to the star they must follow.

It is a masterpiece of imagination – and that perhaps is the faculty most stimulated by our story of the three wise men. The world is full of possibilities and countless different kinds of people. It was precisely into this mixed world that Jesus came, and no true human gift will ever be denied his blessing.