In our church, the Magi begin their journey at the far left side of the sanctuary. Over the 12 days of Christmas, they make their way across the apse, arriving at the Nativity scene just in time for the feast of the Epiphany.
I like the custom, but I would amend it. When all the other Christmas scenery disappears, I would let the Magi linger a little longer. Slowly retracing their steps, they may remind us of something important about the Christmas story.
In cultures where the Magi play an important role, especially where they, and not St. Nick, are responsible for children’s gifts, they have some backstory. An Armenian text gave them the names of Gaspar (or Caspar), Balthazar and Melchior.
They were all kings, though of ages representing three generations. Melchior, the oldest, was King of Arabia. Balthazar was African and the King of Ethiopia or Saba. Gaspar, the youngest, was King of Tarsus in Turkey.
Legend also provides these kings with a history after their visit. Deeply affected by their encounter, they went home, renounced their royal roles and deep-pocketed robes, and took to the road as humble beggars and preachers.
The extended story of the Three Kings follows the pattern of the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology, wrote about the archetypal hero’s journey that varies only slightly from culture to culture. We find it in the stories of Gilgamesh, Buddha, and many of the prophets.
The hero’s journey begins with a summons that comes from a voice or a sign. Then there is the trek, filled with trials and tribulations to test and temper the hero. When he or she finally reaches the destination of their quest, they receive a gift that leads to personal transformation.
The fourth stage is the most significant. This is the return. The hero must leave the mountaintop, the enchanted forest, or the cribside of the Christ child, and go back to use the gift to serve others.
It is only in the return, and the service, that the gift is fully realized and the hero completely renewed.
Our own Christmas may pale in comparison to the Magi’s, but we too were called to the quest with the first candle of Advent. Now it’s over and the time of return.
So what about that gift?
We might take the time to reflect on, not what I got for Christmas, but what, if anything, I got from Christmas.