WISE PERSONS WHO CAME TO GREET THE CHILD JESUS
PROJECT SUBMITTED TO THE ST. JOSEPH OF LYON SISTERS
Art Ashram India, December 2001.
to the Theme:
I have been thinking about the theme of the three wise persons who
witness to the Incarnation, from an Indian perspective. Already
I have been painting this subject representing the Wise Persons
(Magi) as Indian sages who are concerned with the interpretation
of signs to be found in nature, such as stars and their configuration,
or other indications from nature of an Epiphany. I prepared for
the Indian catechism a "mystery play" in which the three
wise persons came from the Indian Primal traditions of Folk and
Tribal cultures. Over the last fifteen years working at the National
Biblical, Liturgical and Catechetical Centre I have been focusing
mainly on these primal traditions, as most of Indian Christians
do not come from the background of a Classical High Caste tradition,
but rather from the oppressed and marginalized peasant or tribal
communities. From such a perspective it makes no sense of course
to stress on "Three Kings" who have no relevance for such
peoples. Anyway, the Biblical account does not speak of Kings, but
rather of wise persons.
It has been generally assumed that these wise persons are all men.
This is from the perspective of a male-dominated society. But, already
in the middle ages, we can observe out that one of the wise persons
is often given a decidedly feminine appearance. This feminine figure
reminds us that one of the texts which is used concerning those
wise persons who came from afar to bear witness to Christ, is described
as none other than the Queen of Sheba. This Queen is supposed to
have come from the East to see the Wisdom of Solomon. Now, in the
coming of Christ there is One who is even greater than Solomon.
Also from very early times, it was a convention to represent the
three wise persons as belonging to three major periods of a human
being's life cycle. Thus, a wise person may be either a youth, or
someone in their middle age, or again a very old person.
Lastly, because the underlying purpose of the Epiphany theme is
to indicate the presence of wise worshippers coming from other cultural
traditions, it is important to note that this wisdom tradition to
be found in the cultures of the East has nothing to do with wealth
or influence, but is often characterized by the insights of those
who are poor and marginalized. This of course is already manifested
by the presence at the Crib of the Shepherds, who were poor people
to whom the Good News is primarily addressed. I have tried in my
sketches to bring out the essential connection between the two infancy
narratives (as found in the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of Mathew)
to show that the witness of the Poor (Anawim) and the witness of
the Wise Persons is essentially not different. This can be understood
because the Wise are also often poor and marginalized. So, in the
Indian context, wise persons can be represented as the Dalits (peasant
downtrodden peoples) the Tribals (Adivasi people, who are aboriginal)
and the Women who also represent a profound wisdom tradition, which
is different and distinct from the kind of wisdom which is to be
found in men.
Finally, we come to the gifts which they bring. These gifts are
themselves symbolic, and have their foundation in liturgical signs.
In fact the whole theme of the wise persons who come to offer gifts,
probably emerges from a very ancient devotional practice of offering
special gifts as a liturgical sign associated with the whole understanding
of Revelation or Epiphany. We know that these gifts are supposed
to represent three precious items, namely Gold, Frankincense and
Myrrh. Each of these items has been invested with profound symbolic
In the Eastern Liturgical traditions related to offering, as in
the Indian concept of "Arathi" we have the importance
given to the different elements. Thus Earth, Water, and Fire play
a very important part in the configuration of Eastern ritual signs.
These elements I feel are not unrelated to the gifts which traditionally
the Magi are supposed to have brought to the infant Jesus.
is associated with the earth in so far as it is derived from herbs,
and is fragrant like the earth. We have taken the symbol
of the pomegranate, which is very much used in Indian medicine,
but is also a fruit mentioned in the Bible as representing life.
In Christian symbolism the pomegranate has been associated with
the Church, in that its many seeds are like the many members of
the living community. Also the flower of the pomegranate fruit is
like a crown. Here the figure of the strong peasant from Gujarat
reminds us of the fact that much of India remains a rural economy.
has been, from ancient times, associated with the element of fire,
in that fire purifies gold, and also gold has a shining warm colour
which is associated with that of flames.
Myrrh as a symbol of death could be linked particularly with
the sacramental meaning of water, which is generally very
important as a symbol of Epiphany. It will of course be remembered
that the other main image of Epiphany is the Baptism of Our Lord.
In this connection water is often included in Icons of the nativity,
where the midwife is shown bathing the infant Jesus.