For me, the most uplifting aspect of Christmas has always been the tale of the Three Wise Men or Magi, who followed the star that led them to the stable where Jesus had been born. I’m unconcerned as to whether or not this event actually happened, because it’s been a pleasing and entrancing part of my cultural landscape since I was a child, while the idea was reinforced by the beautiful melody and words of the opening verse of the Christmas Carol We Three Kings, something that everyone reading this is surely familiar with:
“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.”
The older I get, the more this story appeals to me. It’s imbued with the ideas of strange fires in the sky and of ancient astronomer priests, elements that strike a profound chord with me, but at its heart, the story of the Three Magi is simply one of people travelling from ‘exotic’ foreign lands to pay their respects at a place outside their habitual domain.
Human beings seem to have been making pilgrimages and benign ambassadorial journeys for thousands of years; I still regularly read of all manner of cultural exchanges or memories such as this one concerning John Hughes, the Welshman who made a lasting impression upon Ukraine in the nineteenth century, but there are countless other positive and rewarding interactions between countries and cultures taking place the world over.
Sadly, the ‘warm light’ generated by these many meetings of hearts and minds between human beings from different cultures is being overshadowed by the Power of Nightmares, whose proponents attempt to dictate to us that anything or anyone who is ‘Other’ is to be viewed with intense suspicion. If I were to believe the not-so-subtle insinuations I see regularly in the media, then I would regard myself as being under threat in various ways from inimical entities in the form of Russia, China, Islam and Europe, with a swarm of marginally lesser evils following in their grim wake.
In every instance, when I’m being invited to consider the threat posed to me from other quarters, the media in question helpfully supply an image of a human face or faces, so that I can more readily identify my suppose enemy and be repulsed by how different he or she is to me, whether this is on account of skin tone, accoutrements or both.
I could continue with this sorry litany for a good while yet, but when I was pondering these matters, I was reminded of the joke that Gene Hackman’s character in the film Mississippi Burning regaled the Klansmen with, saying that he likes baseball because “…. it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.” By precisely the same token, I love all the depictions of the Adoration of the Magi because they seem to be the only representations of strangely-garbed ‘Others’ that can be reproduced these days without an accompanying strident call for their deportation and for their countries of origin to be carpet-bombed back into the Stone Age.
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan, 1994.