No nativity play would be complete without the three kings, central characters in the tale of Christ's birth. And I suspect almost as well known as the characters themselves, at least among those of you old enough not to be playing the kings yourselves this year, is the fact that 'the three kings' is entirely a misnomer.
There might have been three of them, but then again there might have been any number, because Matthew's Gospel doesn't say. What it does say is that these people were 'magi', not 'kings', but, as we sometimes call them, 'wise men'.
Yet even this expression does not quite capture what Matthew wants us to know about who these people are. Magi are not simply people who happen to be clever or experienced, but possessors of occult or arcane knowledge, able to deliver oracles and interpret mysterious signs, like Balaam in the book of Numbers, who prophesies that
a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall arise out of Israel.
These mysterious figures are the inheritors of the ancient biblical tradition in which the wizards, sages and astrologers of the pagans are sometimes granted true insight into the mysteries of God's providence.
In today's Gospel, Matthew obviously feels very positively about his Magi's wisdom, which after all they used to get as far as Judea at least, and the reason Matthew tells this part of the story, which the other Gospels don't relate, is that it teaches us something about the positive value of human wisdom and knowledge.
A great many commentators on this passage suggest that the Magi are models of Gentile believers in Christ, and there is an element of truth in this. But I don't believe it is pure chance that they are Magi rather than kings or other rulers, the more usual representatives of foreign nations.
If Matthew had wanted to invent some story about the Gentile nations worshipping Jesus from the beginning of his life, surely he would have taken his inspiration from passages like today's psalm:
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!
But this isn't some story Matthew has invented to strengthen what is one of the major themes of his Gospel. Instead, the visit of the Magi represents the epiphany, the manifestation of God's presence in the world, not to the Gentiles as such, but to the human intelligence, which is at once indispensable and desperately dangerous.
It is indispensable because, as with the Magi, our journey towards God begins with our ability to understand and interpret the signs of God's presence in creation -- maybe not astrological signs, but the many and various ways in which the existence of an entirely good and loving Creator is shown to us in the world around us. This ability we call 'reason', and it is what separates us from all the other animals and enables us to begin our search for the truth, a search that culminates in the ultimate Truth, God himself.
Yet it is a dangerous gift precisely because it is so precious, for we might appreciate it so much that we come to think that it is sufficient for us, that our knowledge of the world and our ability to understand it is all we need, so that the intellect becomes our God instead of our route to God.
However, the Magi did not sit at home rejoicing over their own cleverness. They journeyed onwards, travelling to a small and insignificant land ruled by an arrogant and cruel petty monarch. They consulted the Jewish scriptures, allowing themselves to be guided by these writings which more intellectually-arrogant men then and since have often been tempted to second-guess. And when they reached Bethlehem, they offered the worship which is due only to God, the source and goal of our intellect, to a new-born baby, the most vulnerable of all creatures.
They also offered him gifts: the gold and frankincense Isaiah had foreseen, and the myrrh which he had not, for this gift prefigures the horrible death of this man who is God, and who could have predicted that men, clever as they are, would be foolish enough to crucify the one who shows them their God?