Tuesday, January 6, 2009

We, Three Kings, of Orient Are......

When I was a wee slip of a lad today was a rather big deal, especially for Catholic school kids. Not as in 'yippee! we have it off!' or 'ohh, it's a Holy Day of Obligation' but because some of the nuns called it The Feast of the Magi while others, and I think technically this was the correct term, called it The Epiphany and we were made to understand in many ways, it was the beginning of the tradition of gift-giving for Christmas.

I love the song in all of the hundred million variations that exist, and, to this day, the chorus actually sends a chill up my spine (I'm padding my resume just in case there's ever an opening on the College of Cardinals, be it in Saint Louis or elsewhere) "We three kings of Orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain. Following yonder star." In much the same way as we pledged allegiance to the flag years before we ever understood the meaning of 'allegiance' none of us knew what 'traverse' meant or what a 'moor' was, but we made up in volume what we lacked in knowledge (a habit many of us have carried into our adult lives, unfortunately).

My kitchen calendar makes a note that tomorrow is Ashura, which I had to look up as I had never heard of or about it (I saved you some time with the hyperlink; you're welcome) and has nothing about the Epiphany which the nuns explained was a Greek word and meant 'manifestation' (as in, they told us, the infant, Jesus, was revealed as the Son of God to Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior- these three symbolized all Gentiles (the other than God's Chosen People, the Jews)).

When you're in third grade, some of this nuance is wasted. You worry if the cartoon ghost is named for one of the kings and how many r's and h's are supposed to be in myrrh (and no matter how often and how different you spell it, it never looks right, even when it is) and why anyone would give that as a gift to a baby. I can remember the nuns having difficulty explaining the Feast of the Circumcision and happily embracing its new name, Feast of the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas or Feast of the Holy Family. I suspect one or more of these same nuns would have had difficulties explaining to us technically, how Joseph was sort of Jesus' step-dad and exactly what a Virgin birth meant. Good for them that we were years away from those questions--not the case anymore here in the early light of 2009 (and this is progress, in what way do you suppose?).

What I recall from religion class was how the Three Kings followed "The Star" and encountered King Herod who was a puppet of the Roman occupation and paranoid about his own future and the last thing he needed was any whisperings about a Messiah. Supposedly he told the Magi to let him know where and when they found the Saviour so that, he, too, could worship Him (but an angel appeared to the kings in a dream and told them to find another way home that skipped Herod). The nuns told us about the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which didn't improve Herod's stock at all, and impressed me most deeply because it meant even then (though I was a little fuzzy on when, exactly, 'even then' was) how dangerous that part of the world was (and has remained).

Many people in many cultures around the world celebrate today, no matter what their kitchen calendars say, and if you are one of those-I wish you well. Someplace, in my childhood is a young believer who thought today was a fitting cap on the Christmas season and read the short story of Jim and Delia and always loved the line, "Forget the hashed metaphor" without ever once understanding it. Hoping you do likewise.
-bill kenny

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