For those of a Christian confession (or should one say “those identifying as Christians?”), the Wise Men have almost arrived. I write this on the Eleventh Day of Christmas. Tomorrow marks Twelfth Night, and the day after that the Feast of the Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the Three Kings, or magi, at the stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child had been born twelve days before. Theologically, the Epiphany signifies the manifestation of Christ to the gentile (non-Jewish) world and establishes the claim, virtually from the start of the story, that the religion that would spring from the Nativity was universalist, for all men everywhere and for all time.
The Wise Men navigated their camels to Roman Palestine from somewhere farther east by starlight, which did not fail them. Their legendary names—Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar—are less familiar probably than the gifts they brought the infant king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts that were the precursors of countless lesser Christmas presents down the centuries. Their journey, and their arrival, are documented in Matthew’s Gospel, but they were branded into the American imagination by a carol composed for a Christmas pageant in New York City in 1857, by the Episcopal priest John Henry Hopkins, Jr.: “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” It has never been my favorite, conjuring as it always will memories of three boys in bathrobes processing down the church aisle, each in his lonely solo struggling to explain the significance of “his” king’s gift: Gaspard’s gold which signifies the royalty of the Infant King; Melchior’s frankincense which signifies his deity, and Balthazar’s myrrh which foretells Jesus’s suffering, burial, and resurrection. Whether the boys in bathrobes were top choristers or last-minute recruits from Sunday school, the effect was charming, sweet, and, yes, simple.
As with so much that once seemed simple, the carol’s mere title (and first line) these days must be suspect. “Orient” is, well, orientalist, and also imperialist, and no doubt racist. In Western representations, one of the Wise Men is sometimes depicted as black but not always, and we really know nothing of their complexions. That they were “wise” sets them apart from others who weren’t: seers and astrologers who looked to the heavens for signs and guidance in earthly affairs. They had heard of the appearance of a new star of special significance, and their journey to follow it could be seen as an endeavor to prove-out what they had only suspected. If so, they followed “the evidence,” which ended up revealing more than they could ever have imagined. Wisdom, which the Wise Men presumably had (as opposed say to just smarts), was something still esteemed as late as when Hopkins (who wrote both lyrics and music) composed his carol in Victorian times. Since then, into the scientific and our own scientistic era, wisdom has suffered a dismal downhill slide. We just don’t like to speak of it much anymore, let alone sing about it. Perhaps this is because there is no metric for it. Nor can we forget that the three travelers were wise “men” and so dread bearers of “patriarchy,” as accursed now, we are told, as it should have been then. Shame on them.
The phrase “wise men” reentered the lexicon with a different set of meanings, fit for a secular age, with Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s eponymous bestseller of thirty-five years ago, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. The book was a timely and deservedly praised examination of America’s post-war foreign policy order through its key architects: Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett and John McCloy. These were the seasoned and tight-knit elite credited with guiding Harry Truman into and through some big ideas, including the Marshall Plan, NATO, and containment of Soviet aggression. They had predecessors, like Elihu Root, and successors, like Clark Clifford and James Baker, but the presumption of bipartisan consensus and non-ideological realism defined what it meant to be “wise” for them all. Realism could of course, like science in our own day, be slippery, as when the Wise Men supported LBJ’s Vietnam policy one year and then rejected it the next. Still, theirs was a legacy to be reckoned with. This is true more than ever in our present moment, when men and women of their kind, but formed by a vastly different culture, are thin on the ground and when ideas of consensus-above-all seem fanciful.
Our moment struggles even harder (when it does not merely dismiss them as a nice, pre-modern myth) with the ancient trio of Wise Men, plodding toward Bethlehem and representing realities that transcend the vaunted realism of the modern sextet. Royalty (gold), deity (frankincense), miracle (myrrh): to probably a majority nowadays these are neither familiar nor friendly terms of reference. Not that long ago, however (and indeed at the very same time when our six modern Wise Men were setting to work on the post-war world), the story of the Three Kings burst afresh into American culture through the then-new medium of television in the form of an opera: Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. The adoration of the magi had long been subject of high art, but in the medium of painting. One such imagining was by Hieronymous Bosch, whose Adoration of the Magi can be seen in the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art today. That was where Menotti first saw it in 1951, as he scrambled for inspiration to fulfill a commission from NBC for the first-ever opera for television. To help meet the deadline, Samuel Barber helped with the orchestrations. Thomas Schippers conducted. Menotti stipulated that the part of Amahl must be played only by a boy and never substituted by a woman. The first boy to claim the honor was Chet Allen, a chorister from the then-Columbus, later the American Boychoir. Amahl premiered on Christmas Eve 1951, and he has never left us.
It was Dickens who first made famous a little boy with a crutch at Christmas. It was Menotti who made him sing. Christians or not, we can thank the Wise Men at least for that.