Walking on my pilgrimages in the warmer months between Easter and September, I tend not to think a lot about Christmas or to notice many things that relate to the nativity.
However, one exception to this was the wonderful depiction in stone of the three kings, above an ancient but now blocked up doorway at the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bishopsteignton in Devon. Walking to Brittany on pilgrimage in 2016 and visiting this church as I made my way through the ‘west country’, I noticed the vivid carving of the three travellers as recounted in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Also known as the ‘wise men’ or the ‘magi’, this twelfth century low-relief sculpture on the exterior of the building is, indeed, magic!
The three kings, shown in profile, hurry through a rather ornate, colonnaded interior to meet a somewhat fierce-looking Mary, depicted face on and wearing the pleated dress of a married woman of the twelfth century. Seated as she is on a substantial stool and with no Christ child to be seen, it would be easy to mistake her for King Herod, the villain of the piece. (And I would have to add here that the great architectural historian of English churches, Nikolaus Pevsner, also struggled with Bishopteignton’s Mary, so I am in good company.) But make no bones about it, the kings have arrived in this Devon village, with the one last in line almost hunched with the effort of their journey.
The celebration of the Christian festival of the Epiphany on January 6th is the time in the traditional church calendar when the story of the three kings is re-told and expounded. Coming ’from the east’ and from beyond the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born, they are seen as representing the revelation of God in Christ to the whole world. In short, they symbolise all of us in our journeys of faith.
I had an opportunity to see Bishopteignton’s three kings again in the recent ‘Covid’ summer of 2020. Visiting relatives who live in the neighbouring town, I found the church locked but with a simple ‘prayer space’ arranged near them in their place above the old doorway. ‘Socially distanced’ garden chairs were provided and also a low table with flowers. Prayers on laminated sheets were also available in a lidded plastic box together with the ubiquitous hand-sanitiser and instructions on ‘staying safe’. Like the three visitors at the end of their journey, I too wanted to find the long-promised one who is both gracious king and caring shepherd of his people, on that warm day at such a challenging time.
The story of the three kings is set in first century Judea, then at the far-eastern end of the Roman Empire. However, their wonderful portrayal above the old south door at Bishopsteignton dates to about eleven hundred years later and to Norman England, a place that would have been at the opposite end of the Roman Empire at the time of the birth of Christ. However, thanks to the re-building in stone of many churches at that time and the skill of medieval craftsmen, we can continue today to admire the depiction of the kings amongst the colonnades as they reach their destination.
Wherever we find ourselves, in Judea at the dawn of the Christian era, in medieval Devon with its new and impressive churches or in the midst of the twenty first century ‘Covid’ pandemic, at any place and at any time, we can all travel with the kings to find the promised one who is both king and shepherd.