In point of fact, we were not (thank the gods!) kings, but rather scientists – astronomers, to be exact. Our work was to study the mysteries of the heavens, the rotating patterns of the stars and planets, the waxing and waning of the moon; in short, to look up in wonder. Our responsibilities were to the glorious universe, and most certainly not to the dusty earthly realities that kings so love to quarrel over: personal riches and the tawdry trappings of fame, border defenses, power over persons, etc. etc.
We had our personal observatories, each one of us – spread across the deep, dark deserts of our homelands, and we enjoyed the fraternity that comes from having a shared project, meeting from time to time to compare findings, to test and challenge ideas, and so on. But when the Star appeared, we found ourselves compelled to do far more than simply gather for a pleasant series of conferences and meetings. This phenomenon demanded a very different response.
And so it was that each of us found himself heading to a rendezvous with the other two, and once we were together, turning toward the Star and allowing it to lead us onward. We traveled by night, of course, but that didn’t prevent our noticing the places through which we passed – scrubby deserted lands and lush valleys, sizable towns and miserable little villages. As I said, such places were usually not our affair. Sometimes we had to shoo off beggars or repel bandits, but happily, we were equipped with all that we needed to do so.
As you know, we found ourselves eventually in Jerusalem, where we called on King Herod, he of the absurd sobriquet “THE GREAT.” A complete misnomer. For despite the grandiosity of his court, the hugeness of the Temple that he had been busily restoring for decades, the tedious number of sycophants in his audience chamber, it was obvious to us that he was a poorly educated man, nervous and defensive, lacking in the normal temperament of a king. His advisers did give us the information we sought, but his stated desire as he sent us off -- "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage." – was transparently false. Yes, neither I nor my colleagues trusted this Herod, and rightfully so, as we learned later.
Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem, and it was a fairly simple matter to locate the child. The Star took up position over the place where he was. As we drew up to the house, the bells of our camels tinkling, the horses snorting, we were struck by the calm that surrounded it. It gave us pause, we three “wise men.” We did not speak of it then, but later, on the long road home, we spoke often of that calm, that peaceful stillness we’d encountered outside that humble place.
The rest of the story you know. We entered the house, and found the Child with his mother and father there. Opening our gifts, we laid them before him: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some – my wife among them -- have questioned the appropriateness of such things for a tiny child living in a modest dwelling with peasant parents, but we had followed the Star, and it was clear to us that we were in the presence of a king. Thus, we gave him the royal gifts we had transported over so many miles and months. His parents, simple people unused to foreigners bearing gifts of any kind, received them and us graciously, offering us food and drink. Most precious of all, however, they offered us time before the little “Starchild,” as we had come to call him. We knelt in that beautiful, peaceful silence for a long time, content to be in his presence.
We left them then, and returned to our countries by a different route, avoiding Herod, though sadly, his wicked plan was carried out anyway. We were changed men as we rode home, quieter, perhaps, and, I would say, at peace. That calm which we’d experienced just before entering the house grew stronger as we’d spent time with the child, and it remained with us as we journeyed. All of us felt profoundly grateful for this gift from the new-born king.
But thinking of gifts, I have to say that there was another. A change in me and my attitude toward the world and its “dusty realities.” I think that Gaspar and Balthazar felt it also, though I don’t recall that we ever spoke about it openly. We all continued to “look up,” to study the heavens, to marvel at the universe, to seek to unlock its secrets. But unlike before our journey, each one of us in his own way looked, not so much “down” as “across.” Speaking just for myself, I can say that I now see others differently. Not just the educated and the comfortable with whom I’d socialized, to whose class I belonged by birth (and, I had thought, by “right”). No, now I find myself looking at those who are, in their lack of standing and resources, similar to the parents of that little King –to the little King himself. And I will confess that at times, this change feels more a burden than a gift, because, like the Star, it demands a response. But it was given to me by Him, and so I carry it with gratitude and hope.
The Star disappeared from my sight, but the Starchild has never left my heart.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA