There is something deeply human in the celebration of light at this the darkest season of the year. One need think only of the Jewish Festival of Lights (Hanukkah), the Hindu Diwali, or even the ancient Celtic Samhain or the Roman Saturnalia to realize that the Christian celebration in December of the birth of the Light of the World is a single instance of a seemingly universal sense of the spiritual depth of this “midnight” of the year.
Like light through a glass crystal, the various spiritual and religious instincts of humankind are refracted through the prism of time, language and place. And this “refraction” receives a glorious commentary in the traditional story of the Three Wise Men and their journey by the light of an extraordinary star to venerate the infant Christ. In longstanding Christian tradition, these wise men or “Magi” are believed to have traveled from what is today Iraq or even as far east as Iran. The key detail is that they were likely Zoroastrians - an extremely old religion possibly related to ancient Hinduism. Zoroastrians regard fire as a force of life and purity, and so Zoroastrian faith involves also a study of astrology and the movement of the heavenly luminaries. It is therefore a profound gesture when it is related in the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter two, that these “Magi from the East” are sharers in a divine revelation that came through the practice of what many first century Jews and even early Christians would have regarded as “fire worship,” that is, idolatry and witchcraft. It is as if St. Matthew is trying to tell his readers, both in the first and in the 21st centuries, that there is a mystery much deeper than nation or creed that unites us. And it may perhaps be that the contours of this Mystery are, at least in part, brought into clearer relief in the exercise of hope and humility: the patient expectation and daring conviction that our deepest wonder and longings are not absurd and do not exist in vain, that the kingdom of heaven is present everywhere. There is someone willing to bow to the Light beheld in the Other, and that there is no means whereby God might not speak to a reverent soul - even in the midst of darkness and confusion.
It was precisely through the profundity of their own faith, their reverence for the True as they were equipped to understand it, that the Wise Men became witnesses to a breakthrough of the divine into history - a fresh “refraction” of the profound generosity of the all-embracing universal spirit who binds us together as human beings. May we be reminded through their witness of the hope that defines our deepest selves and of the humble greatness of soul that is required of those who would live in this hope. Frail and fractured as we may be, more often than not groping to find our way in an age fraught with darkness, the Star of the Wise Men teaches us that there is yet a higher, better way - the way of hope and humility: the habit of reverence.
-Dan Nicholas holds a BA in Philosophy from Eastern University with a concentration in ancient and medieval thought. He is an ordained Reader at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas and teaches AP Literature to high school seniors. His special research interests include the theology of Dostoevsky, the sacred/secular divide, and philosophical foundations of modern psychology.