Home By Another Road

January 6, 2005
The Feast of the Epiphany

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the east . . . set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. . . . On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrhh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod [who wanted to harm the child] they went home by another road.
           — The Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 2

Probably no other aspect of the traditional Christian nativity story is as embroidered in popular culture as the passage given above. The story of the wise men who come from the east to pay homage to the infant Jesus is told only in Matthew. That they were kings, three in number, named Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, that they rode on camels and wore rich robes and glittering crowns, that one of them was black, and that they were attended by a deferential page, are all embellishments dating from the Middle Ages. Yet they are portrayed this way in art, in song, and notably in typical crèches, where their presence along with the shepherds is yet another inaccuracy.

But these figures in all their mythical splendor are my favorite part of the Christmas story. I’ve already written of my love for the story of Amahl and the Night Visitors, in which Gian-Carlo Menotti adds even more characters and events to the kings’ tale. The first Christmas card I ever sent out, in 1964 when I was a senior in high school, had a picture of the kings crossing a field and, inside, Carl Sandburg’s quiet “Star-Silver,” which calls them “vagabond kings.” Until I started sending my year-end letter instead, I always chose a card with a Wise Men theme.

St. MM CrecheWhen I was little we went to church at St. Margaret Mary’s in Penbrook, a few blocks from where we lived on Canby Street. The parish was founded a year after I was born, and my father told me they named it after me because he was the choir director. I don’t think I believed him. At Christmas there was a crèche that I judged “life size.” It had a camel with real leather reins and a saddle. On Sundays we got to church before anyone else did, to get the music ready, and sometimes Daddy would lift me up and let me sit in that seat.

That crèche is still in use and is pictured at left in a snapshot I took last week. The shelf with the cruets of holy oil is about even with the top of my head (I’m 5’4′), so you can see that the scene is only “life-size” if you are about two feet tall (and that camel is a newborn). As crèches go it’s not very pretty. It’s garish, chipped in a lot of places, and the figures are out of proportion to each other. But looking at it this season I had a small epiphany of my own. It is possible that I love the Dragnet Christmas story so much because the nativity scene shown there looks a lot like this one.

And just as my understanding of the message of Amahl has changed since I was a child, so has my understanding of the story of the wise men. I no longer concentrate on the gifts or the beautiful robes or the exotic camel. I concentrate on that last line. They went home by another road.

It’s a call to change. This is the last day for Holidailies. I thank Jette and her helpers for setting this up and keeping it going. It looks easy but I know it’s not, and undoubtedly takes way more time than you ever think it will. Holidailies made me start writing again for this journal and made me follow through on a commitment. I found new online journals to read and got reacquainted with some old friends I’d neglected. People read my work and responded. I’ve marked my calendar at next November to check back in and register again.

I’m going down that other road now, and so are you. You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me. I’ll be seeing you.

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