"I should be glad of another death"
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 2, 2010 - At the outset of another advent season, it is fitting to contemplate the intricate unity of Scripture’s comprehensive narrative revealing the Word made flesh. Consider as a single instance of this beauty the journey of the Magi from the east to visit the Christ-child. The gospel of Matthew records the climactic encounter thus: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11)
In the popular imagination, the principal function of this scene in salvation history is to provide material for kitsch plastic nativity scenes and on-stage experience for budding child actors who, unlike the parents videotaping, appear entirely immune to the levity induced by their toweled heads. Gratefully, the sweeping narrative of Scripture reveals a grander pattern into which the story of these wise men is woven.
Solomon, the archetypal wise man of the Old Testament, tells us that wisdom is “better than jewels.” It is “better than gold, even fine gold.” Indeed, wisdom’s value is incomparable: “all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8: 11, 19) The Eastern Seekers in Matthew’s gospel would have undoubtedly endorsed Solomon’s view of sagacity. This is precisely what, at first blush, makes their actions appear the height of folly.
Leaving the comforts of their contemplative life, they set out for Jerusalem – following an astronomical sign. But instead of embarking on a quest for fame, glory, or riches as fortune seekers are wont to do, they travel bearing, both in person and possession, all of the world’s treasures with the purpose of disburdening themselves of the same by worshipping a Jewish toddler. If wisdom surpasses then treasures of the earth, then it is the mark of prudence to exhaust one’s worldly means in pursuit of that which is incomparably desirable. But in light of the Solomonic counsel, the Magicians’ mission is sheer madness. For they offer the treasures of the world in exchange for an audience with an infant who cannot speak – much less impart the wisdom that is better than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Of course, the grotesque nature of their actions is merely apparent. For what seems “folly to those who are perishing” is, in fact, the enactment of Solomon’s wisdom in salvation history. Paul explains that Jesus Christ is the Wisdom of God. Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). Thus, when the Wisdom Seekers divest themselves of earthly wealth and social standing to bow before a Jewish boy in Jerusalem, they become a living sign of what Scripture testifies about the Word made flesh. Like the wisdom personified in Proverbs, Jesus Christ is of incomparable value precisely because he is the very Wisdom that they seek.
May this advent season be an occasion to marvel at the mystery of the foolishness of God.