Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just an end to the season of Christmas, Epiphany is a Christian celebration all its own commemorating the revelation of God the Son in the humanity of Jesus Christ. There are various traditions observed around the world, but the story of the magi who came from afar to visit the Christ Child is the central tale remembered, and often, reenacted. One of the most powerful presentations of this story I’ve ever experienced comes in the form of a picture book.
I remember the day I happened upon it. My little boy and I were making our usual trip to the library and there was Mary Hoffman’s Three Wise Women—just lying there in the picture book bins. It’s royal blue cover, Christmas star, and three women gazing off in wonder into the distance nearly bowled me over. I knew before I even opened it that it was the book I wish I’d written.
It’s fine that Ms. Hoffman beat me to it, because I can now read it to anyone who will listen — that might have grown tiresome if I was reading my own book. I’ve read it to my own children, other kids in my life, storytime groups, worshippers, and church councils. It’s been out of print for a number of years, but can still be found and it’s worth every penny.
The three women are introduced one at a time.
In the west the sky was bright with stars as a young woman stayed up late, baking bread….
Way down in the south, where countries are hotter, another woman sat up late at night, rocking her child….
Far away in the southeast an old woman was telling stories to her grandchildren by the dying light of a cooking fire….
Far away, each woman sees a new star, brighter than all the rest, beckoning. For reasons none of them can explain, they follow the star. The baker takes her bread…the mother her child…the grandmother her stories…and they set out on an adventure.
What was it about that star? There was something different about it that drew all three women from their homelands; and something the same that said to each of them, “Follow me.”
The women meet on a path of starlight, not knowing how long or far they’d traveled — but they aren’t hungry, thirsty or tired, so they each assume their journey has been short. They continue together, taking turns carrying the baby, through hills, past sleeping shepherds, and down into a town lit by the unusual star.
There they see men in fine robes who mount camels and ride away from a small building with a thatched roof.
“We have come so far…we must go inside.”
Inside the small stable, there is a new family — a man, a woman, and a newborn child (none of whom are named) — surrounded by rich gifts and starlight. The mother invites the star-struck wise women in. Each has a full heart and feels compelled to give a gift. But they have nothing — or so it seems at first. They give what they have. The baker-woman gives her bread — the baby reaching out to “touch the loaf, as if to bless it.” The grandmother tells him a story full of starlight and hope. And the young mother’s heart pounds against her sleeping child, “for he was all she had to give.”
When the grandmother’s story ends, the child wakes and holds out his arms to the new baby. The two mothers hold their sons and the child gives the baby “a kiss full of starlight.” His mother sighs — there was a present to give after all.
And then the three wise women leave and walk the paths the star made back to their homes. When they arrive home, no one noticed they’d been away and no one remembered the star.
If the story ended here, it would be very good and I would like it so much. But it’s the last paragraph that really cinches it. I’ve never read it without tears.
The star-baby in the stable never forgot the women and their three presents. When he grew up, he showed that fresh-baked loaves taste even better when they are shared. He told the most wonderful stories to anyone who would listen. And the man whose birth had been marked by a new star taught the whole world that the greatest gift of all is love.
Bless you, Mary Hoffman — such the gift you’ve given us with this book.