I do not think that popular sentiment has come anywhere near close to granting those extraordinary travelers, the Magi, the honor they truly deserve. These “watchers of the sky” must have been divinely inspired, in addition to being intellectually gifted, to have enough faith to leave the comforts of their homeland and embark on what must have been an extremely arduous journey.
The Magi were guided by a star, not a map. They were responding to a belief, not a specific invitation. They were willing to disrupt their lives to venture into the unknown without any assurance that their journey would take them to their destination.
The Magi are prominently featured on Christmas cards. They happily travel three in number, guided by a star, bringing gifts for the newborn babe. It all seems so beautifully scripted. They are easy to take for granted, appearing to be an inevitable part of the Christmas picture. T. S. Eliot, in his poem, Journey of the Magi, however, describes their pilgrimage in most unsentimental terms:
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelter,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
One wonders whether the resolve of the Magi ever faltered. Did they hear, as Eliot surmises, “Voices singing in our ears, saying/That this was all folly?”
There are intimations, in Eliot’s account, of Calvary. Myrrh, one of the three gifts, was commonly used for burials. Were the Magi led to “Birth or Death?” the poet asks. There was certainly a birth, the Nativity of Christ. But the journey to Bethlehem was itself an experience of death. The Magi, also and deservedly called “Wise Men,” were suffering a form of travail akin to what a woman undergoes prior to birth. They were prefiguring Christ’s message that in losing one’s life, one gains it.
The birth of a babe also prefigured Christ’s death on the Cross. Are birth and death mysteriously intertwined? Must we all experience the shadow of death in the form of suffering in order to be reborn? “I should be glad of another death,” writes Eliot, in speaking for the Magi and in closing his tribute to them. “For death presages the birth of a better life.”
In Muriel Spark’s novel, Memento Mori (Remember Death), people receive telephone calls from an anonymous person who says nothing more than, “Remember you must die.” Despite the efforts of professional investigators, the identity of the caller remains undetermined. Yet, in being forced to think about their mortality, some of the recipients of these mysterious calls begin to appreciate life more strongly. “If I had my life over again,” says a certain Henry Mortimer, “I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life . . . without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of the eggs.”
The journey of the Magi, given all its hardships, prepared them well for the birth of Christ. As Matthew 2:11 tells us: “And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshipped him. And opening their treasures they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
A Japanese philosopher by the name of Masahiro Morioka has written a book entitled, Painless Civilization in which he sharply criticizes the modern attempt to separate death from life. He contends that a life dedicated exclusively to pleasure and the elimination of pain produces a state of the “living corpse” or “fossilized life.” Professor Morioka, in effect, is reiterating Muriel Spark’s message: without death life becomes insipid.
We owe the Magi not only high esteem, but also heartfelt gratitude inasmuch as they have reminded us (without benefit of the telephone or the printed tome) that the awareness of death can intensify our appreciation for life, that suffering can deepen our reverence for birth, and ultimately, that final death can be a prelude to resurrection. For the Christian, the trilogy of Life, Death, and Resurrection forms the basic outline of the human drama.