It is unfortunate that The Rev. John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891) has so completely shaped the popular imagination about the Christian festival of Epiphany (celebrated on January 6).
John Henry Hopkins was the author of the popular hymn “We three kings of orient are” to which we owe much of what we think we know about the story of Epiphany. Most of Hopkins musical telling of the story is harmless. But, his designation as kings of the visitors who came to pay homage and bring gifts to the infant Jesus, was certainly unfortunate.
Perhaps the artistic symmetry appealed to the The Rev. Hopkins. Foreign kings travel a great distance and seek advice from Herod, King of the Jews, to find the new true Jewish king who by their ancient arts they have discerned had just been born. But alas, in Matthew’s Gospel that contains the only story of these visitors, the Greek word used is “μάγος” (“mä’-gos“). And, whatever the Gospel writer hoped to indicate with the word “mä’-gos “, it was not kings. The Greek word for king, used in the same story by Matthew, is “bä-sē-lyü’s“.
“Mä’-gos ” means something more like teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, or sorcerers. The English translation “wise men” is much closer to the original intent than kings.
The world does not need more kings. There are plenty of power-brokers out there. We have an abundance of kick- butt-fix-it-men available with their ready-made surefire solutions to all the problems of the world. No, we do not need more potentates.
But we do need more wise men.
Sorry, but the Greek noun “mä’-gos” is a masculine noun. The writer intended us to understand that these were “wise men“. But, as someone who is blessed to have close relationships with a number of deeply and profoundly wise women, I know well that the designation “mä’-gos” is in reality in no way gender specific.
Where today are our “wise ones from the East”? Who might have the ability to follow a star and point the way to the truth, beauty, and light embodied in the person before whom “they knelt down and paid him homage… opening their treasure-chests, and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11)? How are we to find our way through the uncertain restless turmoil of our time to that place of wisdom and truth to which came the wise men whose story we remember at Epiphany?
What are the skills necessary to become a “wise one”?
If we are going to get to wisdom, we need to see something fundamental about the nature of the journey the “mä’-gos” took. They did not travel quickly. Travel in the ancient world, did not take place on rapid transit.
It was a slow arduous business to get from “from the East… to Jerusalem”.
The journey of the “mä’-gos” was not easy, but it was simple. You can only pack so much on a camel; the rest must be left behind. The desert landscapes they traversed would have been sparse and open, hours and hours of the slow steady rhythm of camel walk.
We mostly travel too fast for wisdom. We are afflicted by the tendency to skim lightly over the surface. We want things in a hurry. We seek instant gratification, easy answers, and quick-fix solutions.
We seldom stop to ponder. We are not accustomed to long stretches of open space.
A culture in which people with time on their hands feel apologetic about the space and freedom they have forged in their lives is a culture that has lost its way and is unlikely to recognize wisdom in its midst.
The clutter of our lives precludes the long slow disciplines that make wisdom possible. If we are going to become wise, we are going to need to minimalize our lives a bit, reduce the inflow, and diminish the distractions.
Wisdom comes to those who travel lightly and slowly through this world.