Growing up in a conventional Catholic home in 1950’s America, I experienced the Christmas manger display as central to the holiday celebration, more so even than Santa Claus and the Christmas tree. Santa–more formally, St. Nicholas–and the tree were both recognized as honored traditions of the season, but the manger scene–set in a straw-covered, stable-like structure that protected Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus from the elements, with the shepherds looking on adoringly and the Wise Men standing regally some distance apart–was the main event.
What I most remember about that manger scene were the three Wise Men. Why they were most prominent to me I don’t know, but perhaps it was due to my firstborn need to assume responsibility for all outcomes: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who take central billing on Christmas cards and Renaissance paintings, required no assistance that I could provide, but the Wise Men had to make their way to the baby in the manger, and they couldn’t do it on their own. And so I took it upon myself to ensure the completion of their journey from the mysterious East by moving them, an inch a day, closer and closer to the manger, a process that would last from December 26 until the Epiphany, January 6. Without my active involvement in this critical undertaking, they would not reach their goal–and dire consequences might ensue.
The late theologian and New Testament scholar Marcus Borg enjoined his students and the readers of his books to look at the Bible with an eye both to its literal words and–more so–to the meanings and metaphors contained therein. Think what you wish about the historical accuracy of the Wise Men, he might enjoin us, but what does it mean? What greater truth does it suggest? What response does it ask of us today? In that spirit of seeking meaning for the present day, I offer this reflection for the new year: We in the industrialized, democratic West–America and Europe–are entering a frightening period in our history, one characterized by a resurgence of xenophobia, militarism, and demagoguery. Rising in response to legitimate fears about the state of the world, these reactions may be tempting, but we have seen them all before and they haven’t boded well.
To counter these trends, we need new wise men and women to lead us, to point the way, to serve as our new guiding star. But these contemporary wise men and women will need our encouragement. We have learned the Burkean truism that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the good do nothing, so they will need to be motivated, to be goaded on, to be taken by their hands if need be and moved forward–just as I felt the need to move forward the Wise Men at the manger scene of my childhood, lest they fail in their mission in life, a mission of peace guided by a star. We must challenge our politicians, our clergymen and clergywomen, and our leaders of industry and the arts to say no to the temptations of xenophobia, militarism, and demagoguery and yes to humanity, democracy, and peace.
Peace was what the Wise Men sought 2000 years ago, finding it in the one we would call the Prince of Peace. And peace is what we must seek again today, led by our own twenty-first century wise men and women. My prayer is that they–and we–are up to the task.