Sunday 6 January 2013

We Three Kings

"Les Rois Mages en Voyage" by James Tissot circa 1986-1984 courtesy

The Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The snow was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember.
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:  were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly.
We had evidence and no doubt.  I have seen birth and death,
But had though they were different; this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot (1927)

I googled the meaning of "Epiphany" and found that it is "the Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles represented by the Magi".  I have heard that it took the wise men twelve days to journey to Bethlehem and therefore did not arrive until January 6.  The wisemen's visit is mentioned only in Matthew.  According to Western Christians, their names were Melchior (a Persian scholar), Caspar (an Indian scholar) and Balthazar (an Arabian scholar).  Kind Herod directed them to find the new baby who had been born, "the king of the Jews" and report back to him.  They rode on camels, following the star in the East, until they came to Bethelehem where they found baby Jesus.  There, they presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Some scholars say that the gold represented Jesus' status as King, the frankincense represented his deity and the myrrh, which was used to embalm people, his death.  The Christmas carol "We Three Kings" has the line "King and God and sacrifice" to reinforce this theory.  After the Magis visited Bethelehem, they returned home via another route since they had been warned in a dream about King Herod's intentions to kill  Baby Jesus.

Epiphany does not seem to be a big celebration in North America, but in other parts of the world, it is.  Apparently, Melchior represents Europe, Caspar represents Asia and Balthazar represents Africa.   In Spain, children receive presents from the wise men on the night of January 5.  At "cabalgatas" the three kings throw sweets to Spanish children as they parade down the streets.  In the Phillipines, children leave their shoes out on the night of January 5 hoping that the Magi will fill them with sweets and money.  In Paraguay, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, children cut grass or other greenery and put it in a box under their beds for the three king's camels.  

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