For us, children of a then more pious land, it was el gran día (the great day). Three Kings’ Day was, after Christmas, the greatest festivity of the year. It was a special holy day — of sharing, song, and celebration. Young and old alike looked forward to it with merry anticipation.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
It used to be that we believed. It was the mystery and the renunciation.
Before dusk, on the grand day’s Eve, we would have placed under our bed a shoebox filled with the freshest and greenest grass. Carefully picked, it would feed the Wise Men’s camels. It would help them endure the long, arduous journey. It was our heartfelt gift for them. The next day, in its place, their gift for us. We had been well-behaved children. We all received, but every present was a unique answer for each.
It was the gift of giving and receiving. It was the wonder. It was the Epiphany, the Revelation.
The Magi realised the interplay of science, philosophy, and religion, of the natural and the supernatural, of doing and contemplation. They knew that the Star did not create itself and that its movement was not random. They understood that the sign was not of their own making. They understood that meaning and value stood beyond empirical observation.
“When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Ruler, who shall shepherd my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the Young Child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” (Mt 2:3-8)
Herod was diligent and powerful too. But he could not see, for his ends and means were wicked. He had the means to inflict death, but not the gift to find Life. He was cunning and controlling. He commanded, but did not obey. Wonder was not his, but pride. And, so, he knew the facts but lacked understanding and wisdom.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the Young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the Young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” (Mt 2:9-12)
It was the joy and the rejoicing. With humble reverence, the Magi knelt and adored Him.
It was true freedom and true courage. The Wise Men had many choices, many possibilities. They knew that real freedom is not conformed simply to one’s self or possessions, but to Truth. It willingly surrenders to the Truth. They knew that true power and valor spring from virtue, not from deception and carnage. They did not employ deceit, insult, or bloodshed. Trusting the divine sign, they prudently returned home by a different route. Eloquently silent in worship and in action, they were loyal servants of the newborn Lord.
It was Faith, Hope, and Charity.
We learned that for something to be true it is not necessary for it to be either empirically proven or logically demonstrated. We had learned that mysteries are as real — even more so — as the grass and the shoebox. We never probed how could it all happen or why the camels needed so much fodder. The Three Kings existed and they would come tonight.
Tonight, like every fifth of January night, they would be back, quietly and mysteriously, once we fell fast asleep — not one second sooner. We knew that only when surrendering control, would the Wise Men arrive. Being on our guard, attempting to spy their every move or to outwit them, would have been self-defeating. It would have signaled doubt or despair, pride, disrespect, or disobedience. A mystery calls for reverence, not mockery.
It was the gratitude. However modest the present, our hearts would leap with thanks. Little did we know of our parents’ sacrifices and dearest dreams, of their careful and devoted tending of the precious moment.
Little did we, children of a then more pious time, suspect that el gran día was teaching us lessons of theological, intellectual, and moral virtue to guide us along life’s way.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.