I think that next Epiphany, I am going to add a fourth magus to my nativity.
Why do we sing “We Three Kings…” and place three figures when we are never told that there were actually three? Why not two, or twenty?
Far from trying to be difficult, though, my desire to add a fourth magus has everything to do with my own experience of the story and the way that I can enter into the story.
Different people focus at different points of the story. Me? I am drawn to the very end, the post-script, you could say. There is, at the very end, a transition sentence. This sentence serves as a bridge between the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt. But this sentence is far more than simply a transition sentence, it could be, I think, the actual high point of the story.
“…they left for their own country by another road” (Mt. 2:12, NRSV).
The Greek word used here for “road” (NIV uses “route”) can refer to a literal road or highway. It can also refer more figuratively to a journey, and it can also be used to refer to a way of life ( for example, “I’ve been down that road before…).
I wonder what it was like for the magi, as they were packing up to leave. Perhaps they woke up early in the morning to finish the last bits of packing before they began the long journey to their home.
Being extra quiet so as not to wake the sleeping child, they tip-toe in the home and place their packs on to their camels, lighter, of course, than when they arrived. Mary and Joseph wake up to greet them and wish them traveling mercies on their journey home. Hugs are passed around, and Mary goes inside to bring out the young Jesus so that they can all say their last goodbyes.
Each of the visitors take the time to hold him once more, the child to whom they were led by a star, the one for whom they had traveled so far to see. Perhaps they spoke to the child, whispered in his ear, and allow that to remain a secret between the two of them.
Mounting their camels, which were less burdened than before, they glance back once more in order to see the holy family a final time before departing. Embarking, though, they do not depart on the road upon which they arrived, but they depart via another road, another route, another way.
Even more than the literal road, I wonder if these visitors ventured out on another journey, another way of life, even if subtle, as if they were changed somehow by the encounter with the Christ child. Perhaps they did not fully understand what had happened, but I don’t think that any of us fully understand anything, we just catch glimpses and small bits of what goes on around us and in us.
I wonder, then, if leaving for their country by another road speaks not only of not going back to Herod and taking a detour, but also speaks to the possibility that in a small way, simply the experience with this child was transformational for them, that they went home changed. That perhaps their encounter with the Word made Flesh, even if they did not fully understand it, had given a gift back to them. Perhaps the magi did not only give gifts, perhaps they also received gifts, and perhaps the gifts which they received from this encounter were far greater than incense, spices, or even gold that they came to offer.
This is the beauty of the story, we know so little about it. It serves as a blank canvas with an outline and invites us to fill in the colors. It provides us not with a completed and detailed story which plays out in front of us, but rather, as an outline inviting us in to participate in the story and allow the story to come to life all around us.
This is the reason that I want to add a fourth magus to my nativity. Because we don’t know how many there were, maybe there were four. Maybe the fourth could be me. Maybe the fourth could be you. After all, this is a story about us, it is a story about those who were far off having been brought near. It is a story in which we return to our own countries — lands, homes — by another road, another way, a fresh journey.