The Quest for the Historical Magi

Last week I sang a song at the faculty/staff Christmas party at the seminary where I teach. I did a parody I wrote called The Quest for the Historical Magi. It’s sung to the tune of “We Three Kings” – but with the words changed to acknowledge the fact that the Bible never says the Magi were kings, and it also doesn’t say there were three of them (there are three gifts, but it doesn’t say they each had one gift). And of course the traditional names Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior are nowhere to be found in the text. In fact, there is evidence in the text that the Magi were actually women… (wait for it…) … because they stopped to ask for directions. [Pause for laughter.] So, in typical Papandrea songwriting sarcasm, here are the words (try to sing it, I dare you):

We undisclosed number of Zoroastrian priests are

Bearing three different kinds of gifts but not necessarily one each

And we probably won’t get there while he’s still in the manger

Following yonder as yet undetermined astronomical phenomenon…

Oh-oh, astronomical phenomenon of wonder, literary device of night

Allusion to the book of Numbers with royal, beauty bright

And though our names are not in the Bible

Guide us to thy metaphorical light

Now, I know in my blog over the last couple of weeks I’ve been giving you the cynical side of Christmas. But I’ve been watching my Christmas movies, and that always gets me in the Christmas mood, to the point where right about this time in the season my heart grows three sizes and breaks that heart measuring device. So although the scholar in me recognizes what the text of Scripture does and does not tell us, I still watch The Little Drummer Boy every year. And no, that is NOT a tear in my eye when the lamb gets hit by the chariot, but then is revived miraculously by the baby Jesus in gratitude for the drum solo.

I was actually thinking, as I was watching Drummer Boy this year, that I’m very grateful that when I was a kid, they actually put these shows on television. I’m not ashamed to admit that this kind of thing was part of what formed my faith. Since then my faith has grown to be more of an “adult” faith, and now I have an ever widening circle of significant films that continue to encourage my faith and get me in the Christmas spirit; films like It’s a Wonderful Life (and the reimagining of this classic, Bruce Almighty), White Christmas, Scrooged, The Muppets Christmas Carol (I don’t care what you say, it’s the best version there is), A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Four Christmases, and that greatest of all Christmas movies, Die Hard.

Of course I can’t forget to mention A Charlie Brown Christmas (I can’t get enough of Linus proclaiming the Gospel of Luke!), and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (both the original animated TV show and the movie with Jim Carrey). There is so much depth in a lot of these movies, even the ones meant for children. The following words have stuck with me all my life, and have shaped the way I think about Christmas:

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

– Dr. Seuss

This year we added a new movie to our collection of Christmas films. It’s the 2006 film The Nativity Story. In some ways it’s very traditional, and in other ways not so much (like for example Mary and Joseph are not played by blond-haired blue-eyed Americans). And yes, it’s got three Magi named Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior (they’re not kings, though). But at the same time, it’s pretty historically accurate when it comes to the political details of Herod’s reign and the Roman occupation. So at the end of the day, I guess I’ll take The Nativity Story over The Quest for the Historical Magi. In other words, I’ll take tradition over skepticism. I’ll even take heart-on-my-sleeve over tongue-in-cheek. Why? Because it’s edifying – it’s uplifting. Sure, it may be sentimental, but it builds up and supports faith in a world where so many forces want to tear it down.

By the way, since we’re on the subject, here’s an interesting website that explains one guy’s theory about the star of Bethlehem. The author is a PhD in astrophysics or some such thing… so, yes, it IS rocket science. I’m not saying I’m convinced by it, but it’s an interesting theory:

In Rome there’s a church called Santa Maria Maggiore. It’s one of the major basilicas. Under the altar is a relic of the manger – a piece of wood said to be from the actual manger Jesus was placed in on the night he was born. Now intellectually I know there’s a good chance that the provenance of this piece of wood is questionable. In fact there’s a good chance the manger might not have been made of wood at all (it might have been a trough cut in the rock of a cave wall). But when I’m on my knees in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, none of that matters because the relic becomes an icon through which I connect with the incarnation of Christ. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14). He became one of us – not just as some cosmic principle, but in the real world, in history. The manger emphasizes the reality of Christ’s humanity, his willingness to get “down and dirty” with the rest of us.

Maybe the star and the manger speak to us of the two natures of Christ. The star reminds us of his divinity, that he is the pre-existent Logos, the divine second person of the Trinity. The manger reminds us of his humanity, that he is the Son of Mary, who truly experienced the human condition. For many conservative Christians, it’s easy to emphasize Christ’s divinity to the point of forgetting his humanity. But for many liberal Christians, the opposite temptation exists, to emphasize Christ’s humanity, and see it as more about solidarity than incarnation. As always, the truth is in the middle – in this case it’s not either/or, but both. It’s a mystery (if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t require faith), but in the end I choose to believe the traditional understanding of Christ as both divine and human. And to me, that’s what Christmas is all about.

After he outgrew his swaddling clothes, Jesus went on to say, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). I think at this time of year more than any other, we have to set aside the skepticism, adopt a childlike faith, and choose to believe in miracles. Miracles like a pregnant virgin, and a star that acts like a GPS, guiding those wise enough to follow it to a helpless baby in a dirty stable. And as the saying goes, the wise still seek Him.

I hope you have a miraculous Christmas, and a new year in which you are open to seeing even more miracles!

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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2 Responses to The Quest for the Historical Magi

  1. Kim Barrio says:

    I think an epiphany about the Epiphany is always cool. We are dedicating a Mass to Mary Kate on the Epiphany because she played baby Jesus last year for the Christmas play, and I truly feel that the Feast of Los Tres Reyes is close to my heart. I am always looking up, looking out and seeking Christ in the form of a journey. I feel like I am never done, either. There is always another leg to this journey. It is kind of neat to think of Mary Kate being at the end of the journey when I get to heaven. It also gives me a great motivator to keep on going, to keep seeking Him. It also seems like I would prefer to journey than to find Christ close to home, and in those people that sometimes bug me in my everyday life. It is one of life’s mysteries to keep being Christ-like towards family, especially when they bug you while you are trying to read a blog. hahaha.
    Happy New Year and Feliz Dia de Los Tres Reyes to you and Susie.

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