Bethlehem, Chapter VI – The Magi

Adoration of the MagiBut now a change comes over the scene, which seems at first sight but little in keeping with the characteristic lowliness of Bethlehem. A cavalcade from the far East comes up this way. The camel bells are tinkling. A retinue of attendants accompanies three Kings of different Oriental tribes, who come with their various offerings to the new-born Babe. It is a history more romantic than romance itself would dare to be. Those swarthy men are among the wisest of the studious East. They represent the lore and science of their day. Yet have they done what the world would surely esteem the most foolish of actions. They were men whose science led them to God, men, we may be sure, of meditative habits, of ascetic lives, and of habitual prayer. The fragments of early tradition and the obscure records of ancient prophecies, belonging to their nations, have been to them as precious deposits which spoke of God and were filled with hidden truth. The corruption of the world, which they as Kings might see from their elevation far and wide, pressed heavily upon their loving hearts. They too pined for a Redeemer, for some heavenly Visitant, for a new beginning of the world, for the coming of a Son of God, for one who should save them from their sins. Their tribes, doubtless, lived in close alliance; and they themselves were bound together by the ties of a friendship, which the same pure yearnings after greater goodness and higher things cemented. Never yet had kings more royal souls. In the dark blue of the lustrous sky there rose a new or hitherto unnoticed star. Its apparition could not escape the notice of these Oriental sages, who nightly watched the skies; for their science was also their theology. It was the star of which an ancient prophecy had spoken. Perhaps it drooped low towards earth and wheeled a too swift course, to be like one of the other stars. Perhaps it trailed a line of light after it, slowly, yet with visible movement, and so little above the horizon, or with such obvious downward slanting course, that it seemed as if it beckoned to them, as if an angel were bearing a lamp to light the feet of pilgrims, and timed his going to their slowness, and had not shot too far ahead during the bright day, but was found and welcomed each night as a faithful indicator pointing to the Cave of Bethlehem.

How often God prefers to teach by night rather than by day! Meanwhile, doubtless, the instincts of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of these wise rulers drew them towards the star. They followed it as men follow a vocation, hardly seeing clearly at first that they are following a divine lead. Wild and romantic as the conduct of these wise enthusiasts seemed, they did not hesitate. After due counsel they pronounced the luminous finger to be the star of the old prophecy, and therefore God was come. They left their homes, their state, and their affairs, and journeyed westward, they knew not whither, led nightly by the star that slipped onward in its silent groove. They were the representatives of the heathen world moving forward to the feet of the universal Saviour. They came to the gates of Jerusalem; and there God did honor to His Church. He withdrew the guidance of the star, because now the better guidance of the synagogue was at their command. The oracles of the law pronounced that Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of Messias; and the wise men passed onwards to the humble village. Again the star shone out in the blue heavens, and slowly sank earthward over the Cave of Bethlehem, and presently the devout Kings were at the feet of Jesus.

It would take a whole volume to comment to the full on this sweet legend of the Gospel. The Babe, it seems, will move the heights of the world as well as the lowlands. He will now call wisdom to His crib, as He has but lately called simplicity. Yet how different is His call! For wise men and for Kings some signs were wanted, and, because they were wise Kings, scientific signs. As the sweet patience and obscure hardships of a lowly life prepared the souls of the Shepherds, so to the Kings their years of Oriental lore were as the preparation of the Gospel. Yet true science has also its childlike spirit, its beautiful simplicity. Learning makes children of its professors, when their hearts are humble and their lives pure. It was a simple thing of them to leave their homes, their latticed palaces or their royal tents. They were simple too, when they were in their trouble at Jerusalem because of the disappearance of the star. But when the end of all broke upon them, when the star left them at that half stable and half cave, and they beheld a Child of abject poverty, lying in a manger upon straw between an ox and an ass, with, as the world would speak, an old artisan of the lower class to represent His father, and a girlish, ill-assorted Mother, then was the triumph of their simplicity. They hesitated not for one moment. There was no inward questioning as to whether there was a divine likelihood about all this. Their inward eye was cleansed to see divine things with an unerring clearness, and to appreciate them with an instantaneous accuracy. They had come all that way for this. They had brought their gleaming metals and rich frankincense to the caverned cattle-shed, where the myrrh alone seemed in keeping with the circumstances of the Child. They were content. It was not merely all they wanted; it was more than they wanted, more than they had ever dreamed. Who could come to Jesus and to Mary, and not go away contented, if their hearts were pure – go away contented, yet not content to go away? How kingly seemed to them the poverty of that Babe of Bethlehem, how right royal that sinless Mother’s lap on which He was enthroned!

The grand characteristic of their devotion was its faith. Next to Peter’s and to Abraham’s there never in the world was faith like theirs. Faith is what strikes us in them at every turn, and faith that was from the first heroic. Had they not all their lives long been out-looking for the Promised One? And what was that but faith? They rested in faith on the old traditions, which their Bedouin or Hindoo tribes had kept. They had utter faith in the ancient prophecies. They had faith in the star when they beheld it, and such faith that no worldly considerations could stand before its face. The star led them on by inland track or by ribbed seashore; but their faith never wavered. It disappeared at Jerusalem, and straightway everything about them was at fault except their faith. The star had gone. Faith sought the synagogue, and acted on the words of the teachers. Faith lighted up the Cave when they entered it, and let them not be scandalized with the scandal of the Cross. They had faith in the warning that came to them by dream, and they obeyed. Faith is the quickest of all learners; for it soon loses itself in that love which sees and understands all things at a glance. How many men think to cure their spiritual ills by increasing their love, when they had better be cultivating their faith! So in this one visit to Bethlehem the Kings learned the whole Gospel, and left the Babe, perfect theologians and complete apostles. They taught in their own lands the faith which was all in all to them. They held on through persecution, won souls to Christ, spread memories of Mary, and shed their blood joyously for a faith they felt too cheaply purchased, too parsimoniously requited, by the sternest martyrdom.

We must mark also how detachment went along with faith, detachment from home, from royalty, from popularity, from life itself. So it always is. Faith and detachment are inseparable graces. They are twins of the soul, and grow together, and are so like they can hardly be distinguished, and they live together in such one-hearted sympathy that it seems as if they had but one life between them, and must needs die together. Detachment is the right grace for the noble, the right grace for the rich, the right grace for the learned. Let us feed our faith, and so shall we become detached. He, who is ever looking with straining eyes at the far mountains of the happy land beyond the sea, cheats himself of many a mile of weary distance; and while the slant columns of white wavering rain are sounding over the treeless moorland, and beating like scourges upon him, he is away in the green sunshine that he sees beyond the gulf, and the storm growls past him as if it felt he was no victim. This is the picture of detachment, forgetting all things in the sweet company of its elder twin-brother faith. Thus may we say of these three royal sages, that their devotion was one of faith up to seeming folly, as the wise man’s devotion always is, of generosity up to romance, and of perseverance up to martyrdom.

These three Kings, like the Shepherds, are beautiful figures in the Cave of Bethlehem, because the attractions of Jesus are so sweetly exemplified in them. He has drawn them from the far Orient by the leading-string of a floating star. He has drawn them into the darkness of His ignoble poverty, into the shame of His neglected obscurity, and they have gone from Him with their souls replenished with His loveliness. There is something exotic in the beauty of the whole mystery. It reads in Saint Matthew like a foreign legend, and why should it be in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, when it should naturally have been in Saint Luke’s? It. seems to float over the Sacred Infancy more like an unchained cloud, that anchors itself in the breathless sunny calm for a while, and then sails off or melts into the blue. As the congruity of the Shepherds was beautiful, so the apparent incongruity of the Magians is in its own way beautiful as well.

What right had ingots of ruddy gold to be gleaming in the Cave of Bethlehem? Arabian perfumes were meeter for Herod’s halls than for the cattle-shed scoped in the gloomy rock. The myrrh truly was in its place, however costly it might be, for it prophesied in pathetic silence of that bitter-sweet quintessence of love, which should be extracted for men from the Sacred Humanity of the Babe, in the press of Calvary. Yet myrrh was a strange omen for a Babe Who was the splendor of heaven and the joy of earth. How unmeet were all these things, and yet in their deep significance how meet! The strange secrecy too, with which this kingly Oriental progress, with picturesque costumes, and jewelled turbans, and the dark-faced slaves, and the stately-stepping camels, passed over many regions, makes it seem still more like a visionary splendor, a many-colored apparition, and not a sober mystery of the humble Incarnate Word. It is a bright vision of old heathen faith, of the first heathen faith that worshipped Mary’s Son, and it is beautiful enough to give us faith in its own divinity. Yet it almost makes Bethlehem too beautiful. It dazzles us with its outward show, and makes the Cave look dark, when its Oriental witchery has passed away. They who dwell much in the world of the Sacred Infancy know how, oftentimes, meditation on the Kings is too stirring and exciting for the austere tranquillity of contemplation, too manifold in the objects it brings before us, too various in the images it leaves behind. Truly it is beautiful beyond words! A household mystery to those eagles of prayer, to whom beauty brings tranquillity because they live in the upper voiceless sunshine! With most of us it is not so. They who feed on beauty must feed quietly, or it will not nurture the beautiful within them.