QUESTION: The feast of the Epiphany often describes the magi as three wise men — and even three kings, as in the old carol: “We Three Kings.” Yet we don’t find the word “kings” in the Gospel’s infancy narratives. Can you explain a proper understanding of who the magi were — and their significance — so I can teach my middle schoolers? — PAT W.
JONATHAN F. SULLIVAN Responds:
The wise men appear only in the Gospel of Matthew where they are described with the Greek word magoi, which in addition to “wise men” implies astrologers or even magicians. Little is known about them (the Gospel doesn’t even say how many there were!) except that they came from the East, where they may have been priests of Zoroastrianism or another religion in Persia.
“There is just one season in the year when men seem able to realise for a moment what the Incarnation means for us all; and never was this so strikingly seen as in the Flanders trenches at Christmas, 1914.
“Just before Christmas there had been some attacks and counter-attacks here and there, and many casualties, but as the holy season drew closer the firing seemed to die down by a general instinct. On Christmas Eve in some sectors the German parapet was decorated with candles and the singing of carols was heard. In the morning from trench to trench were shouted greetings, and all along the line the bolder spirits began walking into no-man’s-land for a talk with equally adventurous enemies. Officers entered into the spirit of the proceedings, and as the day went on a good part of both armies had left their trenches and were fraternising in crowds between the lines, exchanging cigarettes and chocolate from their Christmas parcels.
“An eye-witness, writing twenty years after (in Reynolds’ News), says: ‘Our brigade was composed of the Gordon Highlanders, the Scots Guards, and the Border Regiment. On Christmas Eve a seventy-two-hour truce was arranged to bury the dead. We sent German identification discs and pay-books to the German lines. They replied by sending similar grim relics to our lines. We fraternised, exchanged views and rations. . . . When the truce ended the Germans fired three volleys in the air to indicate that hostilities were resumed. Even so, about twenty Germans were still walking about unarmed on the top of their trenches, and our lads did not attempt to shoot them down. Indeed, although many of us were threatened with court-martial, our unofficial armistice lasted for fourteen days.’
“Another (Seaforth Highlanders): ‘On Christmas Eve German soldiers began to shout across that they wanted Christmas without firing. At first it was regarded as a joke. As night advanced there seemed to be more sentiment in the German’s shouting, and one of our fellows, a daredevil corporal named Davie Flint, cried : “If you’re not afraid, come right over.” Someone came. Davie threw off his equipment and jumped forward to meet him. Others followed, and for four days Germans and Seaforths exchanged smokes and rations. It was glorious. We enjoyed the utmost freedom and officers joined in our rejoicing. Then we went out for our four-days’ rest. On returning the Colonel said that fraternisation must cease, we were at war. A German was coming towards us. The Colonel shouted to him to go back. He failed to do so, and orders were given to fire over his head. This was done. The Germans replied with five shells. That is the true story of the first Noel of the war, before Messines in 1914.’ (Isaac Sefton, Airdrie.)
“Another: ‘I was serving with the 2nd Bedfords. The Germans put lanterns on the front of their trenches and called out to us not to fire as it was Christmas. There was singing on both sides. Before long British and German soldiers were exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs in no-man’s-land. We were later relieved by the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and our opposite number, the Saxons, by the Prussian Guards Orders were at once given reminding us that we were at war. Shots were fired over the heads of the Germans. Hostilities resumed. I don’t know what happened to the Saxon soldier who was a waiter in a London hotel. If he had the luck to come through it all, here’s Christmas greetings to him from G. L. Joyce, Peterborough.’
“The Christmas spirit could go on all the year round if our Faith in the first Christmas was strong enough.”
– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part I: the Creed (1939)
Every year it seems that the cultural observance of Christmas starts a little bit earlier. Stores are constantly seeking to lengthen the time they have to sell holiday items; this year I even saw some stores with Christmas decorations in stock before Halloween!
While this is understandable from a commercial point of view, it clashes with the Church’s observance and understanding of Advent — that time of both preparation for Christmas and anticipation for the Second Coming of Christ.
How can we keep Advent in a culture that has forgotten this important liturgical season?
Put up an Advent wreath in your home. Light it during meal time with your family.
Start each day in prayer and reflection. Many parishes provide a booklet of reflections for use during Advent; you can also purchase such booklets from a local Catholic bookstore or online Catholic supply store.
Utilize a site such as the University of Creighton’s “Praying Advent” page for daily prayers and audio reflections.
Don’t decorate your house or trim your tree until the week before Christmas and leave the decorations up throughout Christmas Time.
Attend the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, either at a parish reconciliation service or at your parish’s normal time.
Find or download an album of Advent music (yes, they do exist!) to play during the season.
For the record: This year Advent begins on November 27. The Octave of the Nativity of the Lord begins on December 25 and ends on January 1 (the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God). Christmas Time begins the evening of December 25 24 and runs until January 8 (the Epiphany of the Lord) 9 (the Baptism of the Lord).
Have a very blessed Advent season. Come, Lord Jesus!
There are many ways in which the Church is out of step with our secular culture, but I think in no way more obvious than at this time of year. While the wider culture seeks to rush us towards Christmas (carols on the radio before Halloween? Really?!), the Church asks us to slow down and wait. While lights are strung and increasingly outrageous decorations are mounted on the front lawn, we light candles on the Advent wreath. While television commercials entice us to buy more and bigger, the Church points to a child born in poverty in a manager.
This is a great time of year to remind ourselves — and the families in our Catholic schools and parish catechetical programs — about what is really important.
If I could make a small request, I would ask every catechist and catechetical leader to invite your families to Christmas Mass. Not with a note or Sunday announcement, but a face-to-face invitation. I know not every Catholic family is in the habit of attending Mass every Sunday. But if we could encourage them to start out the Christmas season on the right foot — not by tearing open wrapping paper, but by giving thanks to the God that has blessed them — we just might start a few more on that path. And what a glorious gift that would be.