My junior high school vice-principal, Harry Branch, was the world’s biggest Beatles fan. For the final day of my ninth-grade year, Mr. Branch planned a day-long lip sync concert of 1960s music. Any student could perform, so long as the music was from the 1960s. But the concert would end with a full set by the Beatles. Mr. Branch hand-picked the Fab Four, and I was Paul. He put us through a rigorous training regimen that included afternoon rehearsals in Chris McCurley’s backyard. (Chris was John Lennon.) We let our hair grow out as mop-tops. We had to purchase black turtlenecks and slacks. And I had to learn how to fake playing the bass guitar left-handed. (That wasn’t too hard to do, since I couldn’t play it right-handed either.)
We lip synced “Help!,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” and more. The day of the concert, the Paragould Police Department offered us a real-live escort to the front of the Paragould Junior High School (which tells you how low the crime rate was in Paragould; apparently the police had nothing better to do that day). Screaming fans who’d been coached by Mr. Branch swarmed us as we ran to the auditorium stage. We were the Fab Four. It was great.
But in real life, was it Fab Four? Might there have been a fifth Beatle? Ah, and thus we enter the perennial debate. If there was a fifth Beatle, who was it? There are numerous candidates. Let’s focus on three. First, there is Pete Best. Best was, of course, the Beatles’ original drummer. Best was part of the band during their sojourns to Hamburg, Germany in 1960 and 1961, when the band’s sound coalesced. But after signing their first record deal with EMI in London, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr. The reasons differ. Some reported that Pete Best was unable or unwilling to maintain the rhythm. Others talked about his sudden mood swings and his desire to be in the spotlight to the detriment of the John, Paul, and George. Some fans even took to calling the band “Pete Best & the Beatles.”[i] Either way, Pete Best wanted to go and have his own way. In a band called the Beatles, he wouldn’t keep the beat, either literally or metaphorically, and that’s no good for a drummer.
Another candidate for the fifth Beatle is Billy Preston. Preston joined the band on keyboards for the “Get Back” sessions, including the Beatles’ final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Records building on January 30, 1969. This was a period in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo were barely on speaking terms with one another, and virtually every week someone threatened to quit the band. By all accounts, Billy Preston’s sudden presence leavened the others. He brought peace and a sense of joy in their work. But just as soon as he arrived, he was gone. His impact was transient, and two years later the Beatles were no more.
A third candidate for the fifth Beatle is producer George Martin. Martin produced the overwhelming majority of the Beatles’ songs. He is often credited with honing their music into a coherent sound. He helped the Beatles mature into artists. George Martin was himself an accomplished musician, and he plays on numerous Beatles songs, most famously providing the harpsicord interlude on the song “In My Life.” Perhaps most importantly, Martin was constant. He was there almost from the beginning until after the end. Long after the Beatles broke up, George Martin continued to shepherd their legacy with a sense of duty and a fair measure of grace. No matter the histrionics or disfunction of the band (and there was plenty of both), George Martin was faithful. After Martin died in 2016, Paul McCartney said, “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George. From the day that he gave the Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”[ii] I don’t know about you, but I’ll call whatever McCartney says gospel!
Speaking of Gospel, in Matthew today the three Wise Men have traveled from the east guided by a star to pay homage to the baby Jesus. But wait…something is wrong with that statement. What is it? Nowhere in Matthew’s account does it state that there are three Magi. Have you ever noticed that? There are three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but the number of Wise Men is left undefined. What if there were another? What if there were a fourth Magi?
What qualities would be required to be credited with such a role? What does it look like to pay homage to Jesus, to leave all behind to follow him, to lay one’s gifts—one’s life—at his feet? Maybe those fifth Beatle candidates can give us hint about the fourth Magi.
Is it the drummer who won’t keep the beat; who refuses to serve in the background as the foundation that carries the rest; who seeks to put himself always in the spotlight, whether for adulation or mere attention? The work of the Gospel cannot crescendo into music that can move the world when the followers of Jesus will not follow. When a guitar string breaks or a voice cracks, the Wise Man knows that keeping the steady beat is the most important gift of all. It buoys all others and keeps the music moving when it would otherwise falter. The same is true of discipleship in the world.
Is, then, the fourth Magi like Billy Preston, the one who brings peace and an injection of joy, who soothes and inspires, but who shows up late and leaves early and soon? It may seem so in the short term, but often such a figure ends up wounding where at first it looks like healing, and distresses where at first he appears to encourage. It can be intoxicating to join a cause, or an effort, or a faith and share one’s gifts. But when enthusiasm just as quickly wanes and the disciple fades away, people feel abandoned. The Gospel is left bereft and there is no one to share grace in a world that desperately needs it. The gifts that one left at the feet of Jesus remain unused in the stable stall, to be swept away with yesterday’s hay.
What about the third option, the George Martin option? George Martin’s gifts were abundant. He may have been a better musician than any of the Fab Four. He shared those gifts in whatever way was needed, at whatever time circumstances required. He did not need to be center stage, and he patiently received the sometimes swirling turmoil around him and melded it into something enduring, moving, and beautiful. He arrived early and stayed until well after all others had gone. He was committed; he was tireless; he was faithful. We might even say he was wise.
I would love to have been the fifth Beatle. (I’ve been singing Beatles songs in the shower since ninth grade, after all.) But that’s not happening. It can happen, though, that you or I become the fourth Magi. It requires not virtuosity or unnatural enthusiasm, but only a willingness to seek out Jesus, to offer to God our gifts whatever they may be, to place the Gospel of love in the foreground and provide a steady and supporting beat for God’s work in this world. Being the fourth Magi entails dedication to that work from now until the very end, knowing that it won’t always be easy or harmonious when we have personalities, and agendas, and the feelings of others with which to contend. It means being faithful to the star wherever it may lead. These things make us wise. They count us among the Magi. And they contribute to the music of grace that will change the world.