The Gift the Magi Received

by Fr. Robert Pelton

What made them set out, those magi?* What did they hope to find? What did the star tell them about the new-born king of the Jews?

What did it promise them that they should have let it draw them forth from home to journey so many miles westward to search in (what was for them) such an unlikely place not for a wise man like themselves, but for a baby?

They were pagans, these magi, and they were astrologers, but they were also masters of all the elements. They knew the secrets of the earth and the air, of fire and water.

They had waited patiently, in silence, for the earth to speak to them in the slow, careful syllables of herbs, in the many-voiced whisperings of leaves, in the languages of bears and rabbits.

They had learned the grammar of acorns and could prophesy the shape of oaks. Their words had been molded by the silent shapes of desert hills.

They had listened day after day to the air. They had yielded to the wind that they might discover whence it comes and where it goes.

They had sung with the nightingale and flown with the falcon, and trembling, they had felt the shadow of the griffin’s wings. They could read the book the sun writes every day, and even in their sleep they could do the sums of the moon.

They knew the voices of rivers and had explored the caverns of the sea. They had let the tides carry them out into nameless currents where all their bones were melted and they became as fluid as the waves.

When they returned, they knew the mysteries of the blood, and could trace the liquid patterns of the human spirit.

Fire had burned their hearts. It had left them empty and so still that their eyes looked always to the marrows of things. It had given them true ears to hear those things speak their real names. The words they spoke fell like sparks on the world.

The magi knew the language of the stars, of course. The planets told them stories in simple declarative sentences—bluff, bold Jupiter and dazzling Venus and elusive Mercury.

Beyond them the stars sang in the desert nights, faintly, with steadier, stranger voices.

In their yearly ebb and flow they wove a subtle incantation—not a spell of luck and chance as the ignorant then and now believe, not the chain of cause and consequence that the half-wise seek to forge, but a simple insistent word that the magi had come to know testified to the way each of the eternal spheres was fixed unalterably in its endlessly turning course.

Not that the word of the stars made the magi despair: no, they understood too well how, within the perfect balance that all things kept, patterns here and there could be reshaped, this figure or that could be transformed, moments now and again could be speeded, slowed, or ever so delicately shifted into some new phase.

The magi were content to spend their years learning the true names of things and drawing into their burned hearts the threads of all the vast powers of the universe—the forces of light, the energies of gravity and mass, the immense dynamism of dissolution itself—so that when summoned, when the time was right and an opening showed itself, they might speak the right word in the right language and bring a blessing to an old woman or a goat or a king.

No, the magi did not despair. Their wisdom had taught them humility, and the humble do not despair. But at times they did grow sad.

It is not easy to describe their sadness. It was not exactly suffering that made them sad, though it was never easy for them to acknowledge how few were the creatures, human or animal or otherwise, they were able to pluck from the net of pain.

It was not death that saddened them, though often they used their healing skills on their own hearts as they stood on the far boundaries of life and watched as children, kind rulers, young mothers fled before them through the twilight into the country of the dead.

Nor was it boredom that made them sad, the inner fatigue that feeds on a surfeit of knowledge, where the whole universe is stripped of flesh and its dry bones crammed into the maw of an already gorged brain.

No: even if the light that shone within them had changed for them, the ghosts and gods their countrymen sensed everywhere into more familiar shapes, the magi knew that this very familiarity sprang from such an intermeshing of names and powers, persisted with such marvelous solidity in the face of the darkness that flickered all about it, that they never grew tired of seeing how even the smallest thing spoke not only its own name, but the name of all the rest.

It was just here, somehow, that their occasional sadness took root—in their ever-growing awareness that the name of all the rest, the word that encompassed all their words, was a nameless name, unuttered and unutterable, unknown and unknowable, forever hinted at, forever silent.

The magi were lords of language, and kings came to them barefooted, bearing rich gifts, to learn the words that would lift a drought or stop a war or heal a city.

They were the masters of the secrets of the heart, and even though they lived in solitude, each had others, two or three, as many as most men ever have, who knew his own true name.

Even love was not a stranger to them. Yet the magi knew that a nameless ignorance clouded their deepest souls, and the souls of every man and woman who had ever lived, so that some insatiable hunger gnawed them in secret and kept them from whatever knowledge, whatever act it was that would give them the perfect joy that forever eluded them.

So it happened, I think, that when they saw the star that spoke to them of the newborn King of Jews they were not reluctant to set out on their difficult journey.

The star made no promises. It summoned them. They were used to that. Even the song of an unknown bird is a summons to a wise man. The star simply told them to go and give homage to the new-born King, and they obeyed.

I do not know the word that the unexpected radiance of this star gave to them. I think that it did not speak to them in Persian or in any of the other ancient languages they normally used to say the real names of things.

I suspect that when the star told the magi to give homage, it spoke in Hebrew and used the Hebrew word for “fall prostrate before.”

Certainly that would not have surprised the magi; they knew what to do in the presence of kings, even infant kings.

Yet there was something strange in this word, some odd shape that caught in their mouths when they said it, some odd feeling that caught in their hearts when they remembered it, something elusive and nameless that, even if it did not make any promises or stir any hopes, rang in the ignorance of their deepest souls and drew them across all those wintry desert miles to the city of the Jewish kings.

As the magi neared Jerusalem, their silence deepened. They were used to silence. They were lords of language, but because they were servants of light, not darkness, they had long since learned that light breathes its words only into the clear spaces of silence.

But the silence that enfolded them now was so huge that it almost frightened them. The star grew brighter, and its word more urgent, and the enormous silence in them pulled that word down into them, down into the cloud of nameless ignorance that lay still in their deepest souls.

The magi knew Herod at once for what he was. They did not have to trick him or cast a spell on him or weave a net of illusion about him. They played him as a wise angler might play a wily old bass so accustomed to lures that it has forgotten what a worm looks like.

They stood there in their strange clothes, their faces calm, speaking the simple truth in their odd accents, and Herod bit.

He found out what they needed to know, told them, then lied to them, and sent them on their way, so caught up in schemes and so sure that they were not what they seemed that it never occurred to him that they would know that he was exactly what he seemed.

As for his evil plans, they trusted somehow that the true King would bring life where Herod meant to sow death.

And so the magi moved through the night toward Bethlehem.

Now the star went before them, no longer summoning, but guiding them, its radiance so filling them that all the names they knew fell away from them into the silence that wholly possessed them.

They were empty now, bearing within themselves only that nameless cloud that no longer seemed like ignorance, but shone with the brightness of the word the star had given them.

Then they were at the door of the stable, their hearts beating against their ribs, their fingers stiff around the precious gifts their hands still carried.

They pushed open the door, and stepped in. They could smell the cows and hear them gently chewing their cuds. A few sheep looked up at them with quiet eyes.

In a corner, on a clean blanket laid over the straw, sat a young woman, a girl really, with a baby on her lap. Her husband stood by her side, and the baby played with his mother’s fingers. She looked at the magi, and was still.

They came a few steps closer, then stopped. Their gifts hung at their sides, useless.

They had nothing to give. Their words had all dropped away, vanished into the namelessness that was revealing itself in them.

They knew nothing —no languages, no secrets, no mysteries. Earth and air, water and fire were silent. The stars were dumb, and the measureless powers of the universe itself were wordless in the magi’s hearts.

Even the abrupt syllables of pain and death were hushed, and sadness too had disappeared.

The wise men stood there, still, voiceless, lost in wonder before the girl and her baby, no longer even knowing what they did not know.

Then the girl picked up the baby and set him on her lap. She smiled at the magi, and said, “His name is Jesus.”

They looked him in the face as she spoke his name, and saw, as another wise man saw, that his eyes were the color of glory.

Then, suddenly but very gently, they felt that glory reach into their deepest souls to embrace the silent radiance now shining there. And as it did, they felt that cloud of namelessness break open and receive its true name, the name that the mother had named her Son.

Then the magi knew that it was to him that all their words belonged, and as those words returned, still and lovely in the glory that filled them, they offered them to him, one upon another, some as rich as gold, some as fragrant as incense, some as deep as myrrh.

And the words became a song in the wise men’s hearts, the song the universe is always singing, and as the universe sang that song in them, sang it to the one whose name sings the universe itself into life, the magi knew that beyond all songs, beyond knowledge, beyond wisdom, beyond silence, beyond even love, they were receiving from this new-born King the word that the star had spoken in them.

As he spoke it in them, their whole being leaped to greet it, and they found they knew it, had always known it.

The word was worship, and when their hearts spoke it, they found that they could say the baby’s name, and they said it, and then, falling down on their faces in the dry, sweet straw, they adored him.

*The sense of what the magi must have been like was given to me by Ursula Le Guin in her book A Wizard of Earthsea (New York: Parnassus Press, 1968).

From Circling the Sun, The Pastoral Press, (1986), pp. 41-45, out of print.