When I was in third grade at St. Vincent School in Newport News, Va., I was deeply disappointed when I was cast in the school Christmas play as a shepherd and not as one of the three kings that I had dreamed of being. The Nativity story is so firmly set in our minds from youth that there could be no other interpretation of the narrative than the one we learned in school from the nuns, the priests in the pulpit, or the manger scene on the altar or under the Christmas tree. While that story may adhere pretty close to the Gospel narrative, there are unsuspected nuances awaiting those who struggle with the text.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, we encounter not three kings, but three Magi. "Magi" is actually the plural of the word magus, or magician. They were sometimes considered wandering charlatans and tricksters, but often, they held positions of authority in the court of kings. They were astrologists, interpreters of signs and dreams, and counselors to kings. The best-known to us are Joseph, who interpreted dreams for Pharaoh, and Daniel, who interpreted dreams for the king of Babylon.
As the story goes, the three Magi were following a star, but the text says only that "Magi from the east arrived," asking, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." In other words, they just assumed that "the newborn king of the Jews" would be born in the capital city of Jerusalem. Their question provoked anxiety because "when King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him."
Herod the Great was a rightly troubled monarch; he oppressed his people, 95 percent of whom were poor. He overtaxed them to the point of starvation while enriching his crony friends and sending all surplus wealth to the Romans, who had crowned him "King of the Jews." The crown lay uneasily on his head, and the appearance of esteemed emissaries from the east looking for a rival "King of the Jews" was indeed cause for alarm, as the prospect of insurrection always lurked behind his throne. Herod assembled "all of the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea.' "
Herod called the Magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance. Of course, all kings and presidents and politicians have their most important meetings behind closed doors, in back rooms and private chambers where they plot the invasion of nations, assassination of enemies, the murder of babies. Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem "to search diligently for the child and come back and tell him where the child was so that I might come and worship him." The reason Herod doesn't simply send an armed cohort with the Magi and just kill the baby outright is that, like all political leaders, violent acts must be done in secret. Killing the Messiah could cause a revolution -- not a good idea.
As soon as the Magi leave the murderous confines of Herod's Jerusalem, the guiding star appears for the first time in the story, as if to say that there is a power greater than a king's to lead them. And indeed, the star led them to the baby's birthplace, where they worshipped the child, gave their princely gifts, and headed back to Jerusalem.
But, "having been warned in a dream, they departed for their country by another way."
In this story, there are three "dream sequences": Joseph has a dream not to leave Mary because she was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit and later has a dream to take mother and child and flee to Egypt; and the Magi have a dream not to return to Herod, but to "go home by a different way."
In this story, there is a deliberate juxtaposition between men who dream and men who murder, between men who have access to the realm beyond the realm of power, politics, and blood and the men in the center of power. Erich Fromm, the immanent psychiatrist, tells us, "Both dreams and myths are important communications from ourselves to ourselves. If we do not understand the language in which they are written, we miss a great deal of what we know and tell ourselves in those hours when we are not busy manipulating the outside world." The men of power do not understand the language of dreams. They only understand the language of manipulation, coercion and murder.
Dreams are subversive. They are always about what we should not do, whether it is the desire for an illicit love or the desire for political freedom. They are always about liberation -- and dreaming of liberation is subversive. Whether it is Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr., who also had a dream, it is always about those men and women who have dreams of justice and a world without oppression and murder, who live out those dreams and "go home," like the Magi, "by a different way".
This Epiphany, we might want to remember that it is murderers like Herod and Pharaoh or presidents and dictators who kill babies while it is the dreamers like Gandhi, King, and Harriet Tubman who have dreams to save them.
[Jeff Dietrich is editor of the Catholic Agitator. His newest book, The Good Samaritan, is available online from Marymount Institute Press.]