I always feel a bit sorry for these wise men as there is, for me anyway, a feeling that Christmas is over by the time we’re hearing their story. I have a nativity set at home (made from recycled paper), which I display over Christmas – it has a figure of Mary with child Joseph, an angel and three kings who are positioned at the side of the main characters as though on a journey but since my nativity set is put away with the Christmas decorations the wise men never arrive. We do hear of them of course in some of the Christmas carols that are sung over the season, and they have certainly taken hold of the Christian imagination that sometimes depicts them as kings and imagines three of them though that’s not stated in scripture. We know very little about them but as with all scripture the point is not so much what is said about them but what their significance is in the Christmas story and what message this might have for us.
The symbolism of the story of the wise men can only really be appreciated in what we know about the life and death of Jesus and the impact he had after his death. It takes us away from any sentimental devotion to Christmas being about baby Jesus but rather reminds us of who and what Jesus is within the Christian tradition. The men from the east remind us that though Jesus was Jewish, his message came to have a universal appeal and took devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob beyond the bounds of Judaism into a gentile world. The gift of myrrh, a resin uses in embalmment is a recognition of his death, the gold a recognition of his kingship and lordship over all and the frankincense a recognition of his divinity. This is the Jesus who is celebrated at Christmas.
Two elements of the story are interesting and worth reflecting on – the star that was the inspiration for the wise men setting out and the journey to find what they were searching for. All of us are on a journey, a journey that will have its ups and downs, its light and shadow, its obstacles and advantages, its helpers and hinderers, all made worthwhile by the sense of purpose and meaning we bring to it. Religion has traditionally seen itself as giving this sense of purpose, offering its adherents a practice and way of life that makes the journey meaningful. It offers a final reward, which either in a paradise or heaven or as an escape from the round of rebirth is realised beyond this human existence. There are of course other goals such as working to promote the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Shambhala, as some Buddhists would say, to serve others, make our world a more just and equitable place to live.
Perhaps we all have our own stars that lead us forward and give some direction to our lives and some may be less noble than others. What is it we want to achieve in life – riches, happiness, health, a long life, power, my way of doing things? Religions I like to think offer a noble direction in that all of them have something to say about love, compassion, wisdom, justice as a way of living. But what about those who have no religion? Here in Britain the results of the recent census reveal that for the first time there are more people who see themselves as nonreligious. What is the story they live by, what is the journey they are on, what is the star that guides them? Some religious people decry this move to and shake their heads at the thought of a world without meaning and spirituality. But surely this cannot be so. Just because people no longer affiliate with a religion does not mean that their lives are selfish or lacking in love and concern for others. It does not mean they do not have a philosophy by which they live their lives. It might mean that the religious story no longer makes sense to them, and religious people might just have to accept that without judging them. Perhaps we need a new story which unites us all, religious and non-religious.
I think there is such a story and it’s one that I have become increasingly interested in. It’s the story of the universe which is also the story of humanity. We now know that out of the mysterious order of reality, from which burst forth a great fireball of creativity, evermore complex forms evolved until we humans were given form at this point in history – the “most recent and youngest extravagance of this stupendously creative universe” as the cosmologies Brian Swimme describes us. Each of us carries within us the whole history of evolution. We are made not just of the dust of the earth but of star dust itself. We are empty of any discrete separate existence but are interrelated and interconnected with all of life – our life is one of interbeing as Thich Nhat Hanh would say. And as such we have great potential for the future of our world and our race. We can help it achieve love, harmony and peace or we can undermine it. I do believe that if we talked more about this common story that unites us all we would have a star to guide us towards the fullness of life and inspire us on how to live and cope with our journey through life whether we be religious or not. I also think that religions, particularly my own, would be made more relevant by taking this universe story seriously and reflecting on its articles of faith in the light of this story. It’s a story that gives hope not just to our world but also to our religions. We need more of it.