We don’t give the Three Kings enough credit. Wise Men or Magi, whatever we call them, I think that we do not think about them enough. At best they get one Christmas song, “We Three Kings,” and everybody is delighted to see the kids chosen to represent them in the Christmas pageant decked out in their exotic finery. As much fun as that is, it still falls short.
So, when I saw that the bulletin company had this image available for our cover, I jumped at the chance to use it. This splendid mosaic reveals the Three Kings as individuals with some identity, even if their faces and expressions are stylized and nearly identical. That is simply an element of the iconographic style of the time.
This mosaic was created in the middle of the sixth century (that is, the 500’s AD) in a church in Ravenna, at town on Italy’s east coast that was a major naval base for the Roman empire during the centuries of its decline and destruction. Because Ravenna was of major importance –with even the Emperor himself living there for several long periods – there were people and resources to construct and decorate amazing churches that revealed the very best art and materials the time had to offer. But because Ravenna reverted to being a sleepy backwater almost instantaneously when Roman naval power ceased, those same churches remained intact, un-defaced by marauding enemies, and un-modified by well-intentioned but tasteless “friends” who would inflict later ecclesiastical art styles (cf, the Baroque or the post-modern). And so we see the Three Kings in the beautiful style of the sixth century.
The Kings lead a long procession of figures in mosaic along the left side of the nave, who are white-robed virgins bearing crowns as well as the lighted torches that mark them as the wise virgins associated with Christ’s parable in the Gospel. This process is coming before the enthroned Virgin, who holds the child Christ and is flanked by four angels. These are the ones who recognize what is revealed in the Epiphany that we celebrate today, that Christ is the King who is to come, the Son of God, and Lord of all the nations. They see and respond to what shines forth in Christ, when so many others, blinded by their own expectations, fail to do so. Maybe that’s why all of them, men and women, receive the title “wise.”
The mosaic also acknowledges their traditional names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – which helps us to understand that these three were indeed individuals with lives and identities before and after their interaction with the Christ child. And this is where I think we can see that we usually do not give them enough credit.
The song says well enough one of the main things we know about the Three King: they came “from afar.” They had their local Gods and worship, and had their own wisdom and learning. This did not prepare them for Christ’s coming in the same way that God prepared the people of Israel through His covenant, and the law, the prophets, and writings. Nonetheless, in their wisdom, they recognized and responded.
The Three Kings then in my mind are the precursors of all the people who are deprived of a family or culture that prepares them for Christ, but nonetheless yearn for Him without having learned of Him. How then, will they find the wisdom that will lead them to what He alone can offer them?
When we fail to announce Christ Jesus as not merely our personal “choice” as God and Lord, but indeed the only God and Savior, we deprive others people of the opportunity to come to Him and receive what He and He alone can give, which is divine life, and forgiveness of sins. In failing to give people the opportunity to move toward Christ and salvation, even if they must come “from afar.” We fail to participate in His Epiphany when we do not give Christ enough credit as the Savior of all nations, and when we do not give all people credit for being wise enough to recognize and receive Him.