Monday, 3 January 2011


The BBC programme "The Nativity" has the three magi arriving in Bethlehem, shortly after the shepherds, at the time of the birth of Jesus and going to the stable. But the events which take place in Matthew actually occur later - they go to a house, not a stable, and the text also suggests they expected Jesus to have been already born.

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterward, some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him." When King Herod heard about this, he was very upset, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the teachers of the Law and asked them, "Where will the Messiah be born?" "In the town of Bethlehem in Judea," they answered. "For this is what the prophet wrote: 'Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means the least of the leading cities of Judah; for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.' " So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: "Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him." And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star they had seen in the East. When they saw it, how happy they were, what joy was theirs! It went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him. Then they returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.  (Mat 2:1-12)

Also notable is the Greek which calls them "Magi", which has been interpreted as Persian astrologers, and there is again no indication that there were three of them, or that they were kings, or any names for them.

What has happened is that the account of the shepherds, Bethlehem and the stable in Luke have been conflated with the Magi narrative, and other traditions in which the Magi are given names.

This conflation can be seen to be happening around the 11th century in France, where the stories formed miracle plays around the Christmas period. The Shepherd Play (with three shepherds, Mary, Joseph, stable, baby Jesus) seems to have been a slightly later derivation from the Easter plays, with a nucleus that was called the "Officium Pastorum". This was originally in Latin, sung as part of a high mass on Christmas day, but was transferred to the service of Matins, which afforded more possibilities for dramatic impersonation and action. There was also an Epiphany Play - with the three Magi - which around this time merged with the Shepherd Play

This was the form of the Shepherd Play:

The praesepe, it appears, was behind the main altar, and contained artificial figures of the Virgin Mary and the Child, behind a curtain. As the five shepherds, suitably costumed, enter the west door of the choir, a boy up under the vaulting, representing an angel, announces the Nativity. After seven other angels have sung Gloria in excelsis, the shepherds begin their march to the praesepe, singing, as they traverse the choir, first a responsorial poem Pax in terris, and then, as they round the altar, the verse Transeamus. At the manger they find two priests in dalmatics, who represent midwives, and with whom they carry on the familiar dialogue. At the words Adest hicparvulus parvulus, the obstetrices draw aside the curtain, and point first to the Child, and then, at the words Ecce virgo, to the Mother. The shepherds kneel before the figure of the Virgin, singing the verses Salve, virgo singularis, and after obeisance to the Child, they turn to the chorus, singing the usual sentence Iam vere scimus. This leads directly into the Mass, during which the pastores rule the choir, and read or sing considerable parts of the liturgical text. (1)

and this was the form of the Magi Play, or "Officium Stellae":

In the simplest form of this play from the use of Limoges, 3 the Magi slowly enter the choir singing the prose O quam dignis celebranda dies ista laudibus. They announce their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then one of them, singing Hoe signum magni Regis, points to a moving star which they proceed to follow from the middle of the choir to the high altar. There they deposit their gifts, whereupon from behind the altar a boy, representing an angel, announces the birth of Christ. Surprised (attoniti et admirantes), the kings return to the sacristy, singing the antiphon In Bethlehemnatus est Rex coelorum. This version is attached to the offertory. Another more elaborate office from Besançon is connected with the intoning of the gospel, and there the Magi are accompanied by attendants who carry the gifts in gold vessels and who are appropriately dressed, two to represent Persians, one blackened to represent a Moor. (1)

These two plays were conflated, and took on the shape of the single Nativity narrative which, with minor variants, is the form we see today in Primary and Nursery Schools, and which takes place at one time, rather than two separate times, at Christmas, and on the 6 January.

Where do we get the idea that they were kings?

Psalm 72:10  says "The kings of Spain and of the islands will offer him gifts; the kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him offerings.", and drawing on this, and other Old Testament verses, it was argued they were kings by Tertullian, in his Adversus Judaeos:

Tertullian, a Christian writer c. 160-230, was the first to name them as kings, and although the Gospels do not mention the number of men present, three are most often shown because of the number of gifts presented. (Two men are depicted on a third-century fresco in the Petrus and Marcellinus catacomb, and four appear in the Cemetery of Domitilla of the fourth century.) Their names, Caspar or Jasper (the oldest), Balthazar, a Negro, and Melchior, the youngest, may have originated as late as the 9th century in a pontifical at Ravenna. Obvious signs of their eastern origin are present: turbans, camels, leopards or perhaps the star and crescent of the Saracens. Joseph, the Virgin's husband, is usually present. The English historian Bede, c. 673-735, explained the symbolism of their gifts: Frankincense was in homage to Christ's divinity; gold represented his kingship; myrrh, used in embalming, was a foreshadowing of his death and crucifixion. Later, the Magi came to personify the three parts of the known world, Europe, Africa and Asia, paying homage to Christ, which explains the traditional appearance of Balthazar from Africa.(2)

The imagery developed to portray them took the form of the Persian setting, and looked back to the story of the three children cast into the fiery furnace (from the book of Daniel), and dressed them ""in their mantels, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments."(Daniel 3:21) and with this parallelism, their number was finally fixed at three, not so much for the gifts, but as a parallel to  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. But this was later, and quite different numbers appear in early Christian art:

In the third century a liking for symmetry led the artists to depict two Magi or four. Not till the Middle Ages did they acquire the names of Balthazar, Melchior and Casper, three kings of Orient, representing the three principal races of mankind (3)

The art of the early Middle Ages shows how the development into threeness for children (from Daniel) and Magi (from Matthew) are so closely bound together:

When the story was told more elaborately, the likeness with the Magi was so close that the two subjects were often depicted side by side, and sometimes they were merged by placing the star above the Three Children.... This combination, especially when the Magi were paired with the shepherds, made a long frieze which hardly could be contained on the side of a sarcophagus and was therefore commonly carved on the lid, where the surface available was long but narrow, requiring small figures.(3)

The English tradition also gave them different ages:

In the English folk-tale tradition, obtained originally from an eighth-century Irish manuscript, Excerpta et Collectanea, Melchior, King of Arabia, who presented gold, is considered to be an elderly, grey-haired man, Balthasar, King of Ethiopia, the giver of frankincense, is regarded as middle-aged, swarthy and bearded, and Caspar, King of Tarsus, who brought myrrh, is seen as a young stripling.(4)

But what of the star? The recent Nativity saw it as a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Regulus. Our appreciation of conjunctions has largely disappeared from Christian tradition, although the Vatican does have an official observatory. But most people who consider stars and planetary alignments to be significant do so outside of Christianity, in the debased astrology of newspapers and magazines, and even there, the portion who actually study the sky are negligible compared with the mass who consume the newspapers, books on sun signs, and the general nonsense that is purveyed. As Guy Consolmagno, planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory asks,

"When the Magi came from the East, announcing the star to King Herod, why was he so surprised? If they could see the star in Persia or Babylon, why didn't they see it in Jerusalem? But then, when was the last time you looked at the stars?...Even if there had been a visible star rising over Herod's palace in Jerusalem, would anyone have noticed it? Two months ago, a small but bright comet appeared in our northern sky; how many of us noticed it? Only the amateur astronomers, who knew the stars of the constellations; they were surprised at a new star sitting among them. The rest of us stayed indoors, watching TV."(4)

We have to go back to a writer like C.S. Lewis to find this kind of link, between a study of the stars, and a Christian faith, and it is not the kind of trivial matters that consume vulgar astrology columnists, but looking at symbolic links of significance between the night sky and events on earth, not as predictions, so much as echoes in the cosmic dance.

"It was beautiful," C.S. Lewis confided, "on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jove blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity-what could be more appropriate?" Thus Lewis wrote to the poet Ruth Pitter early in January 1953, recalling what he had seen in the night sky during the Christmas that had just passed.(5)

Derek Brewer remembers how Lewis once "pointed out to us the extremely rare conjunction of five planets all brilliantly visible in a circle." His letters frequently detail the pleasures he took in the firmament: "Isn't Jupiter splendid these nights?" he exclaimed to one correspondent in 1938; "Do you ever notice Venus these mornings at about quarter past seven?" he asked his godson in 1946. "She has been terrifically bright lately, almost better than Jupiter."(5)

And this comes through strongly in his Narnia books, especially in one sequence in Prince Caspian.

A few days later Caspian's Tutor said, "Tonight I am going to give you a lesson in Astronomy. At dead of night two noble planets, Tarva and Alambil, will pass within one degree of each other. Such a conjunction has not occurred for two hundred years, and your Highness will not live to see it again. It will be best if you go to bed a little earlier than usual. When the time of the conjunction draws near I will come and wake you."

It was long and steep, but when they came out on the roof of the tower and Caspian had got his breath, he felt that it had been well worth it. Away on his right he could see, rather indistinctly, the Western Mountains. On his left was the gleam of the Great River, and everything was so quiet that he could hear the sound of the waterfall at Beaversdam, a mile away. There was no difficulty in picking out the two stars they had come to see. They hung rather low in the southern sky, almost as bright as two little moons and very close together.

"Are they going to have a collision?" he asked in an awestruck voice.

"Nay, dear Prince," said the Doctor (and he too spoke in a whisper). "The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest."

Doctor Cornelius said nothing for about two minutes, but stood still with his eyes fixed on Tarva and Alambil. Then he drew a deep breath and turned to Caspian.

"There," he said. "You have seen what no man now alive has seen, nor will see again."

It is notable that the great good is not won without a struggle, that the conjunction does not remove free will, or somehow ensure that Narnia will automatically be set free; the signs point to the history that is unfolding, but, like the Delphic oracle, can only be finally understood after the events which they echo.

This is, of course, a kind of thinking that modern scientific worldview finds difficult to deal with. How can the movement of planets and stars effect anything on earth? But by imputing meaning to these events, and working with a non-rational method to how these symbols behave and are structured, might it not be the case that we are opening up our own thoughts and consciousness to insights which we might not otherwise have, making cross-connections and patterns that are there in our real world, but which we might otherwise overlook. Famously, Kekulé hit upon the structure of Benzene after a dream. Archimedes, according to the story, shouted "Eureka", in the bath.

And considering patterns in the stars may do the same, opening up the mind to less rigid patterns, so that a whisper of events, in ancient texts, in the gossip along the trading routes, of expectancy might translate into certainty when the Magi studied the pattern of the stars? As Douglas Adams said:

As we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. (6)

(1) The Medieval French Drama, Grace Frank, 1954
(2) Baroque Art: A Topical Dictionary, Irene Earls, 1996
(3) Art in the Early Church, W. Lowrie, 1947
(3)  English Legends of the Three Kings:, Alison Barnes, History Today 1997

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