The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has questioned the story of the three wise men but does this change the message of Christmas?
What”s this? Has he actually said that the Three Kings didn”t exist? Well, not quite.
“St Matthew”s Gospel,” he remarked in a radio discussion, “says they”re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That”s all we”re really told.”
But think how deeply these three men have entered our imagination as part of the Christmas story. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in.
The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”
Those words, in a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem The Journey of the Magi.
And we can see it all: the camels” breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger.
Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says. The wise men, as Dr Williams points out, figure only in the Gospel according to St Matthew. That”s no surprise, since Mark and John do not give accounts of the infancy of Jesus.
St Matthew tells of them in just 12 verses, beginning: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ”Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.””
It doesn”t say they were kings, or that there were three of them. We suppose they were three because they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.
From the earliest times these gifts were accorded mystic significance: gold for kingship, incense for worship, and myrrh for anointing, just as Christ was anointed with precious spices for his tomb.
Of course, our imagination is filled by the images that artists have provided. There”s a lovely ancient mosaic in Ravenna, 1,500 years old, showing the kings, sorry, I mean, wise men, in oriental garb of trousers and Phrygian caps, carrying their gifts past palm trees towards the star that they followed.
Their names are picked out in bright tesserae above them: Balthassar, Melchior, Gaspar. Those names are not in the Bible either.
In a funny way, these three wise men, the Magi, are older than Christmas. They come at Epiphany, which we (in the West) celebrate (or ignore) on January 6. That”s what Twelfth Night is all about. This day was in the earliest Christian times the great feast of the coming of Jesus.
At the Epiphany three events were marked: the birth of Jesus (called in prophecy Emmanuel, meaning “God with us”); the manifestation of this saviour to the Gentiles (us), represented by the Magi; and the baptism of Jesus, as an adult, when a voice from heaven was heard saying “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It”s with this baptism that St Mark chose to begin his Gospel.
Christmas, as the actual birthday of Jesus, only began to be celebrated as a separate feast on December 25 three centuries or so later by Latin-speaking Christians in north Africa. It was a different world in north Africa then.
There was no Arabic, nor were there mosques (Mohammed was not born for another couple of centuries), and small cities were run by men in togas, writing rather good Latin and debating heatedly just how much God the Father was the same as God the Son. No turkey on Christmas Day, but no snow either.
Yet old Bishop Andrewes spoke of the wise men coming in solstitio brumali, which he expected King James (who prided himself on his learning) to recognise as the winter solstice, when the days are shortest.
A lot of nonsense is talked today about Christmas “really” being the Roman festival of misrule, Saturnalia, or the feast of Natalis Soli Invicti, the birth of the invincible sun. But people then were quite capable of distinguishing one from another.
Christians cheerfully adopted artistic representations of Jesus as Apollo, for example, because he was a bit like the (fictional) sun-god.
The Christians had a prophecy to prove the point, taken from the book of Malachi in the Bible: “Unto you that fear my name,” said the Lord, “shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”
This prophecy, by the way, explains the puzzling line in the carol Hark the Herald Angels by Charles Wesley, where it speaks of Jesus “risen with healing in his wings”. The wings are metaphorical, but they”re biblically based too.
Equally so, then, is the metaphor of Jesus as the Sun. If customs had developed slightly differently, we might be celebrating Christmas at the summer solstice in June, when the sun is brightest.
Of course, midsummer is precisely the time that Australians do open their Christmas presents. No one had planned for them in the fourth century, because, although educated people knew that the earth was spherical, they thought no one lived in the antipodes, because the burning latitudes at the equator would be too hot to get past.
I mention these details as an indication that people hundreds of years ago had thought about such questions quite as much as we do today, sometimes more. It is just that they assembled their thoughts in a different pattern from us, and we can easily mistake their drift.
So, the first time someone tells you that the ox and the ass are not mentioned in the biblical account of Jesus”s nativity, it can come as a shock. One checks the Gospels carefully, and indeed no ox nor ass appears.
But the medieval painters did not just invent them. They were familiar with the verse in Isaiah: “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master”s crib.” The painters wanted to show the belief of Christians that Jesus Christ, even as a baby in the crib, was the owner, master and indeed creator of men and beasts.
Whether a wandering magus 20 centuries ago was called Gaspar or not matters to no one much but him. It matters a very great deal whether a child born one summer or winter day in those years was really the prophesied Emmanuel. Dr Williams declares that he was, and that this is the good news of Christmas.
The Sunday Telegraph