I was blessed, years ago, with a godchild, now in her mid-fifties. She was brought up as a church-going child in the Christian faith. When she was 14, she was enrolled as a student in one of our best Episcopal prep schools. During her first year there, I visited her and her mother during the Christmas season. She told me earnestly, “My religion teacher said that the Three Wise Men never existed.” She seemed to be a bit knocked off her feet by that. Almost thirty years later, I am still haunted by my failure to think of a proper response to this.
John Ford’s film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, contains an immortal line. In this movie, John Wayne’s character is the one who actually shoots the villainous Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin at the top of his game), but he allows Jimmy Stewart’s character to get all the credit for it. Some time later, the Stewart character, who has become a highly successful and respected politician partly on the strength of his supposed identity as a hero, tries valiantly and honestly to set the record straight. He presents his written testimony to the local newspaper editor, who then melodramatically tears up it up and throws it into the nearby wood-stove. Stewart protests, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” The editor replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…print the legend.”
Are the Three Wise Men, or Three Magi, or Three Kings, merely legendary?
I suggest, tonight, that we think not in terms of “fact” but of “truth.” When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.
What is the truth of the story of the Magi, or the Three Kings?
First let’s get our terms straight. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, there is no number three. They are simply identified as “Magi from the East.” The number three arose quite understandably, later in the retelling, simply because there were three gifts. “Magi” (magoi in Greek) identifies them as astrologers, “from the East.” The important thing about this is that they were not Jews. They did not know the God of Israel. They had foreign religious beliefs. They were “strangers to the covenant of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). They looked to the stars for meaning, countermanding the direct teaching of the prophet Isaiah—had they known it—that God does not tie himself up in simplistic messages from the stars, because he is the infinite Creator of the stars over whom he has total and absolute mastery (Isaiah 40:25-6). This Creator sent a particular star to lead the Magi to Jesus of Nazareth.
In addition to this, however, the early Christians began to identify the Magi as kings. Why? Because they read the Old Testament through the lens of the story of Jesus Christ. They went back into the Psalms, for instance, and read that
He [the messianic King] will rule from sea to sea
and from the great river to the ends of the earth…
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles
will bring tribute to him;
The kings of Sheba and Seba
will present him gifts.
All kings will bow down to him
and all nations will serve him. (Psalm 72:8-11)
Thus, the story—legend, if you will—becomes a promise. The One whom God will send will be King of kings and Lord of lords. In the book of Revelation, St. John the Divine, in his place of exile, sees the City of God coming down from heaven to earth. It is the promised future, the Day of the Lord, the return of Jesus Christ in glory, the establishment of his reign for ever, and the fulfillment and consummation of all God’s promises. And so we read in the final book of the New Testament:
I [John] did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21:22-26)
All nations, all rulers, all peoples, all religions will bring their treasures into the City of God. There will be one God, and one Savior Jesus Christ. This is really not in the realm of “fact.” This is in the realm of Truth, and of promise.
Only God can bring permanent peace and everlasting love to the world’s peoples. Only God can bring human suffering to an end forever. This is his promise in Jesus, and all the rulers of the earth will acknowledge him and his perfect kingdom of eternal joy and blessedness. This is the great truth and the certain promise of the legend of the Three Kings—for in the end, there is only One King.