by Donal Anthony Foley –
On Sunday, we celebrate the Epiphany, or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, in the persons of the Magi, or wise men, whose presence is one of the most mysterious aspects of the whole nativity story.
St. Matthew introduces the Magi in his Gospel as wise men from the East who have come to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King of the Jews. We are not told where they came from or how many they were, but are informed that their arrival caused a stir in Herod, and “all of Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:3). We also learn that it is Herod who assembles the chief priest and scribes to learn more about where the Messiah is to be born and directs the Magi to Bethlehem.
So who were the wise men?
The Greek word for “wise men” is “magi.” In the ancient East, this was the name given to teachers, priests, astrologers, seers and so on, and although it can be understood in a negative sense, clearly with the Magi of the Gospel we are dealing with well-disposed seekers after truth.
From Matthew’s Gospel it is clear that they associated the unusual star they had seen in their homeland with the newborn King of the Jews in a very precise way. It is probable that they came from either Persia, that is modern Iran, or ancient Babylonia, that is modern Iraq. They were probably Medes, members of a priestly caste who practiced religious rites connected with Zoroastrianism, and were familiar with astronomy such as it was then practiced.
It is also possible that the Magi were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, since the Prophet Daniel had lived in that area centuries before. In particular, they may have been familiar with the prophecy of Balaam on the future coming of the Messiah, which is recorded in the Book of Numbers: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel …” (24:17).
Regarding the star, it was most probably a strictly supernatural sign rather than a natural heavenly object, or objects, such as a supernova or a conjunction of planets, since we are told that “the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to restover the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9).
Obviously, exploding stars, or planets, do not move in such a fashion, so it must have been a supernatural sign, and meant only for the Magi.
In any event, they were clearly men possessed of great faith and fortitude in order that they should have commenced on such a long and perilous journey, probably a distance of well over a thousand miles, which would have taken many months, undertaken on camels, according to tradition. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, they might well have expected to find the new king in a royal court, or a splendid palace, rather than a humble dwelling.
But their faith was so strong they ignored any such preconceived notions and instead fell down before the Child and worshiped him, presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts indicate the Magi recognized the royal dignity of the Christ, and even more, possibly His divinity. For gold has traditionally been interpreted as a recognition of Christ’s kingship, frankincense a sign of His divinity, and myrrh symbolic of His death.
The identification of gold with royalty is a frequent theme in the Bible, and even today, incense is burned as a recognition of the divine presence, as at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Myrrh was used in the ancient world for embalming the dead, as when Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes for the burial of Jesus (Jn 19:39).
The Magi were representative of the Gentiles, just as the shepherds were representative of the Jewish people. According to tradition, they numbered three, and their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The tradition that they were kings probably comes from Psalm 72, where we read: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (Ps 72:10-11) Sheba and Seba are areas in the East.
A tradition has come down to us that they were later martyred as followers of Christ, and that their bodies were brought to Constantinople from Persia by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, before being brought to Milan, and finally, to Cologne in Germany. Their magnificent gilded reliquary, which dates from the 12th century and which is the largest in the Western world, is housed in Cologne Cathedral.
So we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the three Magi.
In 1917, there was another “manifestation” when Our Lady appeared to the three shepherd children in Fatima. They had no costly gifts, but they were able to offer her their hearts, minds and bodies in a sacrifice, which was very pleasing to God. During this Christmas season, we can do the same when we contemplate the Christ Child, with Our Lady and St. Joseph, and offer ourselves to Him.
Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also written two time-travel/adventure books for young people, and the third in the series is due to be published later this year – details can be seen at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk