The three wise men (as everyone knows but tends to forget) did not visit Jesus in the manger as a baby. They found him much later, living in a shanty on the outskirts of Bethlehem, when he was two years old. This is important.
They knew they were looking for a child, and this was a matter of some awkwardness for them. They often wondered: What behaviour would be appropriate in the presence of a child-king? They pictured themselves kneeling, presenting their gifts, and then perhaps sitting stiffly on the edge of wooden chairs and nibbling biscuits. Their conversation would be mainly with the parents, of course, while the child looked on serenely, wonderingly. With careful humility they would avoid his large, omniscient eyes.
This is not how it turned out. These men were bachelors, remember. Monkish types. Contemplatives used to sitting on their duffs and reaching after the ineffable with their noggans. What could they possibly know about the terrible twos?
How surprised they were to find their little king blazing around the house in a torn toga, chattering up a storm, and leaping onto their laps to tweak their beards! Even more surprising, they found they did not react to these improprieties with horror. Instead they felt all the stiffness draining out of them, lifetimes of reverent caution (i.e. distrust) dissolving like sugar lumps in tea. They were charmed, delighted, won. Truly and deeply. In no time they found themselves regressing, relaxing back into the childhoods they had never had. They got down on their knees, all right, but it wasn't to worship - it was to give the kid camel rides, and then to roll over like great fat bears while the boy who had made the universe used their bellies for trampolines. Yes, they fell down before their king, yet not in some formal act of prostration, but bowled over like ninepins by the thunder of a child's chortle.
Even the stars - which to these men objects of utmost seriousness – were like so many marbles to the Boy King. Had they not given themselves to following one of them, believing this to be the great high purpose of their lives? And where had the star gotten them? Rolling around in their sumptuous robes on the dirt floor of a hovel, that's where. Squealing like pigs, hooting till their sides fairly split, squirting out buckets of snotty tears. Ripping open their fine silks and brocades so that the holy little hoodlum could blow trumpet kisses into their bare tums.
Did the magi know beyond doubt that they had found their king? O yes, they knew! They knew it when the little guy sat astride their backs, smacked them on the rumps and cried, "Giddy up, Frankincense! Mush, Myrrh! Heigh ho, Gold - away!"
"Jesus, hon," his mother kept saying, "Don't embarrass the nice men."
But he was born to embarrass nice men, to embarrass them with riches. All day long the great sages lay in the dirt collapsed in ecstasy, slain by the spirit of an urchin. All night they lay there too, babbling in tongues, humming snatches of psalms and Mother Goose, burbling musically like babes. That night the greatest astrologers of the ancient world literally saw stars - saw them for the first time, as they are, rolling round heaven to a toddler's tune.
These men who had come to pray, ended in play. They came to give gifts, but ended by leaving what they had always longed to get rid of: starched collars, phony crowns, jaded adult wisdom. The wise men were turned into wise guys. Jokers. They became fools - fools for Christ.