(HOST) To commentator Jay Parini, the tradition of giving gifts during the holiday season has more to do with hope than materialism.
(PARINI) At Christmastime, almost uncannily, I begin to think about the Magi, the three wise men who came from somewhere "in the east" in search of a messiah. In a remarkable poem called "The Journey of the Magi," T.S. Eliot sets the scene for these travelers, speaking in the voice of one of them:
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.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
The journey toward the child Jesus was – in Eliot’s version – a difficult passage over mountains through icy weather, on camels who did not especially want to travel under such conditions.
Myths and legends exist for a purpose: they give texture and shape to our lives. The three wise men represent all who journey toward hope, guided by a star that may or may not be a sign, unsure what to expect but certain that – somehow – they must make this journey.
There is scant evidence for any "real" magi. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is just a snippet about visitors from the east – the only mention of them anywhere in the Bible.
That there were three of them is only a guess, as three gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
These would have been very nice gifts, by the way. Gold symbolized earthly kingship. Frankincense – a perfume – was associated with the power of prayer. Myrrh was an oil used for anointing kings. Any number of associations with these offerings will have deepened the meaning of the gifts themselves. For instance, myrrh was frequently used in ancient times as an embalming oil, so was connected with death and suffering.
The name "magi" relates to our English word "magic." It’s really a Latin version of the Greek plural word – magos – which refers to holy men. The word is widely used in the Zoroastrian religion to refer to priests, and these priests were often experts in astrology. So the idea of going to the stars for guidance established the notion that these visitors to the manger in Bethlehem were "magi."
By the eighth century, the wise men had acquired names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – names found on a fragmentary Greek text discovered in Alexandria. The names vary in different Christian traditions. For example, the Syrians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.
To me, these symbolic figures represent those who choose to follow a star that shimmers in the distance, a signal from beyond, as it were.
What lies in that manger in Bethlehem, in hiding from King Herod, remains a mystery, but it’s the great and wonderful mystery at the center of Christmas. At the darkest moment of the year, when there is less daylight than at any other time, there lies this hopeful presence, this potential brightness.
And so we come, bearing gifts – whatever we can bring.