All Hail the Christmas Wizards!
I had a number of reasons to not like Roland Rashaan Kirk. He is most famous for his contributions to avant garde jazz with which I have a few fundamental problems. But most of all, I had to skip his track on Verve’s Christmas album due to 1) it being a riff on We Three Kings and 2) his use of jazz flute.
Recently while driving the song came on and I didn’t skip past it. I found, to my surprise, I was not only enjoying the melody but the earnestness of the jazz flautist as well. The flute can be a damnable instrument in the service of jazz. But Kirk peppers in traditional jazz instrumentation and holds back from jazz pedantry and an overemphasis on virtuosity in service of those three crazy kings and their journey from the Orient. My old ideas about the song, and the use of jazz flute, had been overturned. I read up on the song, found every version I could find and reignited my fascination with my favorite characters in the nativity scene: the Christmas wizards.
No, they weren’t kings. The idea of the three wise men being kings was cemented in medieval Europe with kings that wanted in on the nativity action and to take their favored and more active role in the church on account of it. Criticism of this power grab was levied by none other than John Calvin who claimed the idea of the visitors from the East being kings was part of a popish plot
They weren’t just wise men, either. They were Magi, from the plural Magus. They were magicians, sorcerers or wizards interested in natural magic. Martin Luther, on a sermon from the small biblical record of the Christmas wizards, used it as a platform to praise natural magic.
So what do we know about these visitors from afar? First, the star initially led them to Jerusalem where they met with King Herod (who wanted to kill the baby Jesus) and he asked his scribes where the “new King” would be born. Seemingly, without flinching they quote the Hebrew Bible and respond “Bethlehem”. Herod tells them to go and bring him back some intel.
The star picks up again and leads them to Bethlehem where they find the babe in the manger. They offer him three gifts. Gold? Check. Frankincense? Sure, a little perfume might be helpful. And, myrrh. A burial perfume. It’s like giving a coffin-shaped cradle to a baby. “You’re going to die!” The myrrh symbolized this. This is a terrible gift. Check out this lyric from the carol:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
The wizards end up getting a vision in their dreams to ditch Herod’s plan and off they go. They leave the biblical narrative never to return and have been a favorite topic of church mythology. Where did they come from? Where did they go? What happened to their gifts?
Rather than speculating, here’s what we can take away from the curious Christmas visitors.
Embrace the weird and unknown. Sure, the story seems incomplete and strange. That’s ok. The Bible is filled with strange things that some scholars spend their life either trying to justify or debunk. Let them fill their days worrying. You and I. Can embrace a strange story and find something in it that might bring us tidings of joy and goodwill.
These wizards were technically Zoroastrians. They were members of a priestly class, most likely, from Persia. They were outsiders. They ended up in the now ubiquitous nativity scenes despite holding to a different faith. They had been in darkness, and now in the person of the infant Jesus, they see a great light. They aren’t on the right team, they don’t come from legacy families and probably can’t argue about the right traditions. They would be less welcome than your alcoholic brother-in-law or politically obtuse aunt. They are outsiders, who on account of the Christ child, are brought inside.
So, embrace the weird and strange and accept the outsiders celebrating Christmas that Christ too came to save. Welcome the outsider and be generous to those around you this season.
Merry Christmas from your friends at Virtue in the Wasteland,
Dan is the director of The League of Faithful Masks which produces the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast. He received his PhD in 2008 from the University of St. Andrews and was recently a professor of history and political thought as well as Assistant Dean at Concordia University, Irvine. He is the author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things.