Shortly after the birth of Jesus, the Bible (through the gospel of Matthew) tells us of the arrival of three men, who came from the east to pay their respects to the newly-born child. The account is as straight-foward as it could be: having chanced upon a new star in the skies, three wise men decided to leave their homes bearing gifts and follow the star, as there was an ancient prophecy about the birth of the Messiah being heralded by the sudden appearance of a star in the skies. Along the way, while passing through Jerusalem, they asked king Herod about the whereabouts of “the one who has been born King of the Jews, so that they could worship him“. Now the appearance of three wise men, who the Bible calls “Magi”, in Jerusalem would probably be enough to stir things up in the city. When Herod and his court learn about the Magi’s true purpose, well… that sure would have caused Herod and his subjects to go into a panic. Being a sly one, Herod asked the Magi to “make a careful search for the child. As soon as you have found him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” The Magi leave the king and continue on their way, following the star, until they find the child and offer him gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. However, “having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route“.
This is an interesting story for various reasons. First of all, the Bible expressively tells us that these three men were Magi. Now Magi were wise men, famous for their learning and wisdom. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, magi were “skilled magicians, astrologers. That these Magi would study the heavens isn’t at all strange. Men have studied the stars since ancient times and have already discovered that certain positions of the “moving stars” coincided with specific events. And if there were stars that “moved”, others would stay immobile, providing these men with the perfect background for measurements and thus meaning could be derived from the place where each of the “moving stars” were to be found. This means recordings would have to be made, making anything out of the ordinary both easy to find and indicative of an omen. Now, they had seen a star that could not be identified and decided to act upon it.
Contrary to modern culture, which usually depicts ancient astrologers as making foolish predictions, logic would tell us that if that was indeed the case, astrology would have long been discarded and forgotten by those who would employ such men. But instead, entire civilizations were based upon such knowledge. And, according to the Bible, it was their knowledge of the skies that allowed them to find the messiah. How’s that for a foolish prediction?
And so it happened that these Magi came to worship Jesus. This is probably the first recognition that something divine made its way towards us. Recognizing the uniqueness of the event, the Magi brought gifts with them. Gifts that would honor both the material and the divine nature of this divine being: gold, incense and myrrh. Matthew, however, says nothing of the kind and simply enumerates the gifts, leaving us clueless as to the intentions of the Magi. In any case, these would be costly presents which would be welcomed by both Mary and Joseph, as they were very poor.
Afterwards, a dream warns them to not go through the same path through which they came. They are not to tell Herod of what they found, but instead to remain silent and silently go back to where they came, thus preserving for themselves everything they’ve encountered and saw and learned. The more practical reason, as indicated in the Bible, would be to prevent Herod to know where Jesus was, so that the baby could live and fulfill his life. But still, being face-to-face with the divine (or a manifestation of the divine) does change lifes. And it is as changed and silent men that they return to their homes.
Thinking about this story, I wondered “What were the gifts of the three Magi?”, “What did they learned?” and “What did they took with them on their way back?” And as three cards fell into the table, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The Universe, The Lovers, The Devil.
They brought protection with them. In the Universe card we have the child — the baby Jesus — surrounded by four elementals, each one of them occupying a different corner. While the temptation to follow an esoteric path is indeed great, and thus attribute the gifts the Magi brought as symbols of Body, Mind and Spirit, a more down-to-earth interpretation would say that these were the things that would allow the child to be safe. And indeed, if we think that the child ended up running away with his parents from the wrath of Herod, those gifts would have come in handy, as when trouble arises, valuables can be great problem-solvers.
As to what the Magi learned, the Lovers card seems to say that they were instructed on the human ways. This might be surprising, but a Magi is still a man, no matter how enlightened he is. And as a scholar, he would spend most of his time unaware of anything outside his more immediate world. However, as they find themselves pulled in different directions / by different intentions (the interests of the baby King opposed to the interests of the Herod and his court), so too do the Magi become aware of human nature and what it entails. And this knowledge comes not from their factual observations, but from above, as illustrated by the angel in the Lovers card. By attuning to the larger forces that sweep this planet, they will learn of a larger reality. A reality that’s both clear and permanent. Not just the reality of mental explorations, of facts and measurements, but also the human reality of emotions, desires and fears. Of everything that haunts us or, in a sense, makes us act like demons.
This leads us nicely to the third card, the Devil. Having sought the Divine, they leave with the Devil of Human Ways. Confronting a higher nature will have this effect. No wonder they are silent. There’s nothing else to say. Man can act either as an enlightened creature (as was the case of the Magi) or as a beast, looking only after its best interest. In a way, Herod here represents the darker half of these wise men, more concerned with its material possessions than with the possibility of experiencing something unique and otherworldly. See how he dashes into the brawl that’s happening in the Lovers card. Action is indeed necessary and reality must be acknowledged.
If “Nature, unaided, never fails”, what happens when Man, with its passions enters the picture? Will he act as an overseer, a witness or as a destroyer? All of these roles are present in this story. That the Magi are incapable of doing anything to misdirect Herod and his troops is significative. Their knowledge has no defense against the arts of war that Herod brings with it. And still, they must act in a way as to deny the material pulses of the Herod Demon. This is why they will exit stage left, a footnote in a larger story, having now fulfilled their function and recognized the higher nature that was born. And the same can be said of Herod. Having recognized the significance of this baby, his role will end and he will be reported dead, so that the Family can return to its country. But that is another story, for another time…