Of all the books I read in college one of the most valuable and one of the few that I still find myself returning to regularly is Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to Be King, a cycle of twelve plays about the life Christ that was written and produced for BBC radio during World War II. If you want to get a better grasp on “the historical Jesus” this is a far better place to start than some dense tome of New Testament scholarship. Sayers weaves together all of the main details of the gospel accounts into a single tale that succeeds at being both a believable harmonization and being genuinely entertaining. And her detailed introduction and extensive character notes make it easy to imagine oneself inside the stories, to see them as living and breathing things.
But far and away, what I love best about The Man Born to Be King is the way it grabs my heart. Sayers’ plays do not merely educate or entertain; they teach you to see the beauty of God made into flesh, given for you. One scene in particular that I love above all others comes from the first play, “Kings in Judea.” In it, the three Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, by their traditional names) at last arrive in Bethlehem after many months of travel, hoping against hope that the star they have been following will lead them to the King they seek. The three kings present Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus with their gifts. But they also come with burning questions, questions that go straight to the depths of human confusion, anxiety, and pain. Under Sayers’ pen, the three kings speak for us all, giving voice to what pastor and author Paul Zahl has called “the man five layers down” – the wounded person who resides unacknowledged and diligently ignored within each of us, buried beneath the geological strata of our efforts to disguise and deflect the secret sorrows lodged in the core of our being. And the Magi find that their (really, our) questions do not go unanswered:
[Shepherd’s Wife]: Come in, my lords, come in. Please mind your heads. I fear ’tis but a poor, lowly place.
Caspar: No place is too lowly to kneel in. There is more holiness here than in King Herod’s Temple.
Melchior: More beauty here than in King Herod’s palace.
Balthazar: More charity here than in King Herod’s heart.
Caspar: O lady clear as the sun, fair as the moon, the nations of the earth salute your son, the Man born to be King. Hail, Jesus, King of the Jews!
Melchior: Hail, Jesus, King of the World!
Balthazar: Hail, Jesus, King of Heaven!
Caspar, Melchior, & Balthazar: All hail!
Mary: God bless you, wise old man; and you, tall warrior; and you, dark traveller from desert lands. You come in a strange way, and with a strange message. But that God sent you I am sure, for you and His angels speak with one voice. “King of the Jews”––why, yes; they told me my son should be the Messiah of Israel. “King of the World”––that is a very great title, yet when he was born, they proclaimed tidings of joy to all nations. “King of Heaven”––I don’t quite understand that; and yet indeed they said that he should be called the Son of God. You are great and learned men, and I am a very simple woman. What can I say to you, till the time comes when my son can answer for himself?
Caspar: Alas! the more we know, the less we understand life. Doubts make us afraid to act, and much learning dries the heart. And the riddle that torments the world is this: Shall Wisdom and Love live together at last, when the promised Kingdom comes?
Melchior: We are rulers, and we see that what men need most is good government, with freedom and order. But order puts fetters on freedom, and freedom rebels against order, so that love and power are always at war together. And the riddle that torments the world is this: Shall Power and Love dwell together at last, when the promised Kingdom comes?
Balthazar: I speak for a sorrowful people––for the ignorant and the poor. We rise up to labour and lie down to sleep, and night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion––the fear of want, the fear of war, the fear of cruel death, and of still more cruel life. But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing the miseries of His own world. For the riddle that torments the world is this: Shall Sorrow and Love be reconciled at last, when the promised Kingdom comes? . . .
. . . Mary: These are very difficult questions––but with me, you see, it is like this. When the Angel’s message came to me, the Lord put a song into my heart. I suddenly saw that wealth and cleverness were nothing to God––no one is too unimportant to be is friend. That was the thought that came to me. I am quite humbly born, yet the Power of God came upon me; very foolish and unlearned, yet the Word of God was spoken to me; and I was in deep distress, when my Baby was born and filled my life with love. So I know very well that Wisdom and Power and Sorrow can live together with Love; and for me, the Child in my arms is the answer to all the riddles.
Caspar: You have spoken a wise word, Mary. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is Jesus your son. Caspar, King of Chaldaea, salutes the King of the Jews with a gift of frankincense.
Melchior: O Mary, you have spoken a word of power. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is Jesus your son. Melchior, King of Pamphylia, salutes the King of the World with a gift of gold.
Balthazar: You have spoken a loving word, Mary, Mother of God. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is Jesus your son. Balthazar, King of Ethiopia, salutes the King of Heaven with a gift of myrrh and spices.
Zillah: Oh, look at the great gold crown! Look at the censer all shining with rubies and diamonds, and the blue smoke curling up. How sweet it smell––and the myrrh and aloes, the sweet cloves and the cinnamon. Isn’t it lovely? And all for our little Jesus! Let’s see which of his presents he likes best. Come, Baby, smile at the pretty crown.
Wife: Oh, what a solemn, old-fashioned look he gives it.
Zillah: He’s laughing at the censer––
Wife: He likes the tinkling of the silver chains.
Joseph: He has stretched out his little hand and grasped the bundle of myrrh.
Wife: Well, there now! You never can tell what they’ll take a fancy to.
Mary: Do they not embalm the dead with myrrh? See, now, you sorrowful king, my son has taken your sorrows for his own.
I have read this passage dozens of times, and I still cannot reach the end with dry eyes. The image Sayers’ wordless infant Jesus, reaching past the other gifts to grasp hold of the symbol of sorrow touches something in me deeper than I know how to fully express. All I know is that this is the King that my true, damaged self needs––the one who has come for our sorrows and who is one day coming again.