FDR and Other Magi


Here it is again.

I’ve told this story many times and I can’t resist telling it each year at Epiphany. It helps me understand the awe that must have been generated by the three magi when they traversed rural Palestine to stand so ostentatiously before the ragged occupants of a stinking stable.

Yes, awe. Awe in the purest sense.

That must have been how the residents of the hamlet of Morrisville, N.Y. my hometown, reacted to a brief manifestation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1930.

Morrisville is not completely isolated.  Its location on U.S. route 20, which connects Albany with Utica, Syracuse, and points west, places it directly in the flow of intellectual and cultural currents. In 1930, Governor Roosevelt motored up route 20 to pay his respects to I.M. Charleton (standing right in the photograph below), the director of the Morrisville Institute (now Morrisville State College).

This little known event suggests Morrisville was not the least among the hamlets of Upstate New York. A future world leader discerned the importance of cultivating village intellectuals like I.M. (who, if not a Republican, was one of the few persons in the village who wasn’t.) History does not say whether Morrisville was at the top of FDR’s itinerary, or why he appears to have left the engine running as he sat in his car and charmed the local gentry. The important thing is, he came.

a kingThe family of Julie FitzSimmons Bookhout, one of my classmates at Morrisville-Eaton Central School in the early 1960s, had a special involvement in FDR’s visit. “Since my grandfather, George FitzSimmons, was a car dealer in town, he had the best car with which to fetch FDR at the train station in Utica and bring him back to Morrisville,” Julie wrote a few years ago. “My Aunt Anne FitzSimmons Kelley, who must have been 9 at the time, and is now 94, got to ride along in the car with FDR himself!”

In 1930, no one knew what Franklin Roosevelt’s future held. Still, he was important enough that I.M. Charleton thought it good to stand on the curb and chat with the Gov as he sat in the luxurious car. We know now, of course, that FDR’s paralyzed legs made it necessary for him to sit while I.M. stood, but in 1930 no one thought it was odd. The governor had perfected the art of charismatic sitting.

FDR’s visit may have been the most historic thing that happened in Morrisville during the Depression and possibly for all time.  My mother said the whole town turned out to watch South Pole explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd roll special ice breaking equipment up Main street (and, as Central New Yorkers know, the harsh winters of Morrisville make it a good place to test arctic gear). Some say they glimpsed Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson at Sautter’s Diner in 1964, but Wilson is virtually unknown except to those who crossed the erstwhile Tappanzee Bridge which was named for Wilson until it was torn down this year. The new and improved bridge is named for Governor Mario Cuomo.

I surmise that FDR’s visit was unequaled by anything else that happened in Morrisville and someday a plaque may be placed in the pavement where his oil pan leaked 90 years ago.

I surmise all this for two reasons. One, FDR’s visit was as memorable to Morrisvillians as if exotic kings from the east had dropped by for coffee and pie. It gives chronic bible readers an emotional point of reference for what it must have been like to wake up in a barn in Bethlehem and see three kings stepping delicately over sheep shit.

And, two, I like to make it clear that my home town was not intellectually or culturally isolated, despite our Central New York accents that make us sound like lethargic North Dakotans. This stems from my frequent discomfort, decades after leaving Morrisville, to discover no one else pronounces words the way I was taught. One teacher pronounced the name of the ancient queen of Egypt as Klayo-PAY-tra, and also said the name of the Communist leader of China was pronounced the way it was spelled: Mayo Tissie Tongue.

Also in the seventh grade, when we were introduced to the short stories of William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the name of O. Henry, I was entranced by a story I thought was entitled, “The Gift of the Magee.” In my defense (and on behalf of Morrisvillians), I assert that it is very difficult to see the word m-a-g-i and quickly grasp that it is pronounced with a long a and a long i. The dictionary pronouncing hint is even less clear and looks like a logo for a foreign car: mæda. Moreover, the word magi was never used in the United Church of Morrisville.

We knew about the itinerant kings, of course, because each year we built a manger scene on the front lawn of the church. But I was 10 before I realized they weren’t from a place called Orientar. And I was 15 before I realized they were magi, not magees.

Ideally, my digression should end here, but I’m still transfixed by the unexpected visit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to my home town. Like FDR’s visit to the Morrisville Ag and Tech institute, the visit of three kings to Bethlehem was calculated to make everyone feel important. If something was happening that warranted the appearance of the future president or the ancient kings, it had to be taken seriously. On January 6, Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas that, along with twelve drummers drumming, marks the arrival of the Magi at the manger where Jesus was born.

In our household, we observe the traditional Latino celebration of El Día de los Reyes and exchange small gifts in honor of their kingly largesse. But this is not a practice I grew up with in Morrisville, and it is not a universal observance.

Views as to who the kings were, in fact, are as varied as the Christian church itself. Some sects, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, excise references to the Kings because they were regarded as sorcerers of Satan. That’s a minority viewpoint, but it does tempt you to look a little closer at these guys.

A handful of scholars believe los tres reyes were precocious astronomers who mapped the stars and studied the passage of planets. If so, that would have placed them several hundred years ahead of their time. Most observers are convinced the kings were garden variety astrologers, a possibility supported by the fact that they not only looked at stars but believed that celestial bodies had something to tell them – and, more than that, they  followed one star for hundreds of miles to find out what it wanted them to know.

Of course, the moving star of Bethlehem was more likely a migrating planet than a fixed star, but who knew about such realities of astrophysics back then? One thing seems certain: the first thing the kings would have checked in Entertainment Weekly was their horoscope.

The term magi, from magus, is a reference to the priests of Zoroastrianism, who studied the stars and planets and made elaborate charts to work out what their movements portended in the currents of human life below. The three magicians from the east didn’t become “wise men” until the 16th and 17th century, when scholars who wrote the King James Version of the bible decided to call the magi “Wise Men.”

Elsewhere, the drafters of the bible used the same word to denote “sorcerer” or “sorcery,” notably in reference to Elymas in Acts 13:6-11, or Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-13. Matthew does not identify the three kings, or magicians, or wise men, but thanks to long standing church tradition, we call them by name: Melchior a Babylonian scholar; Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), a Persian scholar; and Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), an Arab scholar.

Everything else we know about the kings is circumstantial. One reason we know they were important is that when they dropped by the palace to pay their respects to King Herod, the King took time to meet with them. This was either a professional courtesy to his fellow kings, or – as Matthew tells it – Herod had heard the rumors that a king of the Jews was about to the born and he invited the three sorcerers in to find out what they knew. The wily Herod asked the three to let him know when they found the lad, “so that I may go and pay him homage.”

Matthew states explicitly that when the triumvirate found the baby Jesus laying in the manger, they gave him three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the kings were smart enough to know Herod was setting a trap for the baby – Matthew says they were warned in a dream – and they “left for their own country by another road,” evading Herod and his agents. Herod realized he had been duped by the kings and, according to Matthew, ordered the death of every new born male child in Bethlehem.

No one knows what happened to the kings after they returned home, although there are many interesting legends. Some believe one of the magi was baptized by St. Thomas, the “doubting Thomas” of Scripture, while he was en route to his missionary tasks in India. Both the Mar Thoma Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India trace their origins to the first century visit of St. Thomas to South Asia.

But it was Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned as pope from 590 to 604 A.D., who placed the traveling wise men in their proper historic perspective. In one of those rare sermons that is remembered for 1,500 years, Gregory stressed the fact that the wise men, having searched for and discovered the Christ, took a different road and never retraced their route.  “Having come to know Jesus,” he said, “we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

Despite all the mystery and speculation about whom they really were, the three magi continue to preach a powerful message across the millennia. They were three non-Jews whose minds and spirits were open to powerful spiritual currents, including cryptic indications that a powerful monarch was about to be born to the Jews, a group they might have dismissed as a relatively minor sect in the Roman and eastern worlds. When the three sorcerers perceived a unique sign in the heavens, a bright object that appeared to move ahead of them, they followed it out of intellectual and metaphysical curiosity.

As they pondered the heavenly sign that moved before them, they consulted their charts and concluded it was leading them to a rendezvous with a infant whose power and significance exceeded all they ever knew. En route to Bethlehem, they decided to mark the occasion with significant gifts to the baby king: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a reminder of God’s presence, and myrrh, an embalming oil, as a symbol of the death that would be required to bring the prophecy to fruition. When they arrived at the end of their journey, these wise men born to riches did not hesitate to enter a rude, odiferous barn, because they knew the power and glory that resided in the human baby resting in an old feeding troth.

They came from afar and they knew who they were seeking and when they arrived, they worshipped the baby in the troth. When they had met Jesus, they knew their lives must be changed forever. And they chose a new road for passage, having decided that they must never again retrace the steps that had brought them to this radical encounter with the son of a God they were only just beginning to know.

The very presence of these three splendid strangers must have amazed the parents of Jesus and astonished other witnesses in area. The visit of the obviously important Magi would have been regarded as a sign that something big was happening – just as Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930 appearance in Morrisville was a sign of something big.

But the glistening kings knew something that may have temporarily eluded others: they knew the magi were not the most important presence in the tiny barn. That honor belonged to the smallest person in the room, the feeble infant still struggling to find the strength to lift his head.

It was the baby that the wise men came to see, and once they had seen him, their lives were changed forever. And as we watch them in our minds eye, three kings stepping out on history’s stage, choosing a new route of enlightenment and understanding, may we all be eager to follow them and the star that brought them to God’s salvation, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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