In England the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated today in churches up and down the land. Have no fear; I'm not going to rant on about that. The surrendering of universally observed traditions to the diktats of a bishops' conference, while perfectly canonical, says all we need to know about the culture of clericalism which Bishop Tom Burns has recently denounced, although surprisingly not where it is most apparent.
No, the one thing I'm surprised about this year is not to have heard that old well-worn line about the three kings not being kings at all. I would be interested to actually look into the philology of the issue. While the word in the original indicates magi and not king, as we understand it, I found myself wondering this morning how much we actually know about the use of the word in its ancient connotations. Various kings or royalty have certainly been known by other titles, rather than their regal one. Vlad the Impaler, or Philippe le Bel, spring to mind. What if the magi were kings who dabbled in a bit of magi-ing?
But then, the very least we know about them is that on their arrival in Jerusalem they were able not only to gain an audience with Herod but also to cause a serious commotion throughout the city, or at least that part of the city which is mentioned in the gospel. Herod also let them go, which suggests that he saw them as something more than the kind of conjurers who might have served in court. These were dignatories of some special kind.
Perhaps we also have too strict a view of what a king is anyway. Our concept is rather too heavily influenced by the Renaissance heritage of the divine right of kings, or perhaps more recently by the ethereal and remote dignity of Queen Elizabeth II. We forget that various places in the ancient world designated all manner of people as kings. The title Duke itself comes from the Latin duc which simply means leader. Perhaps king is as elastic a term as the terms 'brother', 'sister' or 'woman' are in the language of the gospel.
And then we have other reasons for supposing the magi to have been real kings, beginning with the Psalms which tell us that
The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts
There is something representative about kings which we do not find in magi, i.e., in the light of the epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles, there is some profound fittingness in leaders of the Gentiles bending the knee to the Messiah, more so than in representatives of the intellectual classes paying their homage (as needful as that may be). And, finally, if we need no other reason, is not the fact that the magi represent US a pretext for thinking that they were kings: none of us, after all are wisemen, but, says St Peter, we are a royal people.
So were they kings? Or magi? Or both? I'm rather persuaded by the last possibility. And in the adoration of Christ they found both their tinsel crowns and meagre learning refreshingly brought down by a baby bundle of swaddled mystery.