"Out of the frying-pan into the fire." "The gathering of the clouds." "The last stage."
Headlines describing the impending fiscal cliff? No. Actually, these phrases serve as chapter titles for J.R.R. Tolkien's best-selling novel "The Hobbit." Translated into more than 50 languages with 100 million copies sold and a new film trilogy by Peter Jackson, many more fans will no doubt come to know and love this classic.
For the unread, Tolkien's tale centers around 13 dwarves and a hobbit who experience many harrowing and life-threatening adventures on their journey to the dwarves' former stronghold to face a seemingly invincible dragon.
Tolkien's subtitle, "There and Back Again" (which Jackson uses for his third film), best captures the transformation of his protagonists and the truth they discover about themselves -- not unlike another group of real-life men who took a life-changing trip remembered each Christmas: the journey of the Magi.
Many legends have been created around the Magi (or "wise men") over the centuries. They have been depicted as kings and given three specific names, none of which is found in the Bible.
However, what St. Matthew's account of the Magi makes clear is their deep desire to find the Christ-Child, and their reaction to that encounter: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' "
Sent to Bethlehem by King Herod, the Magi soon find Jesus and his mother, Mary. They respond by bowing down and worshiping Him and presenting "Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh."
But why were these men seen as wise?
The late James Montgomery Boice of Philadelphia's historic Tenth Presbyterian Church gave three reasons to consider: "They were wise enough to seek Jesus ... [unhindered by pride] they were wise enough to seek information ... and they were wise to worship him when they found him."
In a nation that has increasingly come to be defined by the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the journey of the Magi is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. For regardless of their wealth, the Magi humbled themselves and worshiped the One who redeems all who believe in Him -- rich and poor, slave and free, male and female alike -- giving their gifts to Him.
Their story has captured the imagination of many over the centuries -- including the Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot. Rejecting the emptiness of the Roaring Twenties, Eliot was baptized into the Anglican Church in 1927. He composed "Journey of The Magi" the same year he himself found Jesus. In the conclusion of his poem, Eliot imagines the Magi's return to their homeland: "I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death."
Reflecting his own conversion experience, Eliot saw not only the world's idols but his own sinfulness and need for a Savior as well. And as his faith grew, Eliot's works began to point to a deeper truth and need for a new way forward.
Boice echoed this truth as well in the conclusion of his Christmas sermon of the Magi's journey there and back again: "We are told that having been warned not to go back to Herod's palace because of his murderous intentions, 'they returned to their country by another route.' And so will you! Your life will follow a different path from the time you surrender it to Christ and your path will be a good one."
John A. Murray is headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.