During my first year in the diaconate program we had an introduction to scripture class. During the semester our professor presented the scriptures as a river flowing from its origin to the sea. His description of the river was vivid with the oral tradition at the headwaters and the rivers of the various bible authors flowing in at various points in its journey to us. Like all rivers it was constantly adjusting and changing direction as it meets obstacles. He was not challenging the point that all scripture is inspired and is without error. His point was how one views the river depends on a person’s perspective when they first see the river. Thus someone from Minnesota looking at the Mississippi has a different concept of the river than someone from New Orleans. That perspective can and does influence how they interpret and apply the scriptures. Therefore someone steeped in social justice can see a social justice message in many of the scripture passages. Someone steeped in feminism can interpret the scriptures as anti-woman.
Why is this important for us to understand? It is important because there are times when we cannot defend a belief that has entered into the flow of our understanding from tradition instead of the scriptures. This does not make what we believe incorrect; it just makes theology hard to defend when someone wants to see its basis in the scriptures. It is important for us to know the source of our belief because there are scripture passages that seem to contradict themselves. It is important because God through the scriptures is revealing himself to us and is teaching us how to respond to that revelation.
By now you are wondering what these early lessons I learned from a gifted scripture scholar have to do with today’s celebration of the three kings. It has everything to do with this day because it is one of the issues of our faith that we can argue about without ever applying its message to our spiritual journey. Yet it is my experience that we seem to love these kinds of meaningless debates that only sidetrack us and prevent us from growing closer to the heart of God.
If you read the scripture passage from Matthew you will notice that it does not mention three kings at all. Matthew tells us “magi” or wise men who came from the east. There is no mention of how many magi there were; there is no mention of camels; nor is there any mention of their names. It would seem that the three kings we see in every manger (Caspar, Melchoir and Balthasar) comes to us from somewhere else, Catholic tradition.
The truth is that the foundation for what we believe about the three kings flows from the scriptures themselves. The prophet Isaiah and King David writing almost 800 years before the birth of Christ spoke about the event of the magi mentioned by Matthew. They inspired by the Holy Spirit told us how God would restore us. God told us that the glory of the Lord would break through the darkness of our lives and our hearts would throb at the revelation of the Lord. Isaiah tells us that caravans of camels from afar will seek him bringing gold and frankincense. King David in psalm 72 speaks of how kings from Tarshish, Arabia and Seba ( three kings) will come giving him tribute and will pay him homage.
Catholic tradition has connected the bible prophecies of camels, kings bearing gifts with the scene given to us by Matthew. So what does all this mean to us? The truth is we can have endless debates about their being kings or not. We can have endless debates about how their names came to be and if those names mean anything to us at all. We can have endless discussions on how myrrh entered the picture (Is. 53) when only gold and frankincense is mentioned in the scriptures. Do you think your heart would throb just because you know why there are three kings with names, myrrh and camels in every manger? No it is informative but it does not cause you to reflect on your response to the gift God gave us that day.
What matters is that God had told us of his plan to restore us through Isaiah, David and all the prophets. The magi read an ancient prophesy and started a journey that ended with them bowing before Christ. The readings invite us to start our own journey to discover the reality of Christ for ourselves. We have the glory of God guiding us to discover who Jesus is and why Jesus came.
This day is not about the magi at all, it is about us and the magi story challenges us to reflect on how much do we believe in what we have been taught about Christ. Do we, like the magi, dare to start a journey following the words of scripture into the very heart of God? If we dare to start this journey then let us begin today by laying the gift of ourselves before Christ and give him homage. Then each day begin a journey led by the Holy Spirit into the presence of Christ where we like the magi will bow in adoration and begin to understand the full meaning of redemption.