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The Wise Men

The Christ child’s adoration by the Magi is called the Epiphany (“Manifestation”) because it announces his mission to redeem all mankind.
by Sandra Miesel | Source:
We Three Kings of Orient Are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Who were these Kings, these Wise Men from the East? What has their gift-bearing mission meant to Christians across the centuries?

The term “Magi” in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) used to be rendered as “wise men” but is now often translated as “astrologers.” Strictly speaking, the Magi were a priestly caste in ancient Persia, but the Greco-Roman world thought of them as experts in occult lore, principally astrology. (Our word magician comes from the same root.)

What matters is where the Magi fit in the Good News. They are literally the first Gentiles to “see the light,” the Living Light that is Christ. These strangers, servants of a false cult, read signs of the Messiah’s birth in Nature — and act on what they learn. In contrast, the Jewish priests fail to respond to the prophecies they find in God’s Word, preferring bloody King Herod to the Prince of Peace.

The faith of Magi (rich, learned, and foreign) complements that of the shepherds (poor, simple, and local). Together, the two groups represent all future Christians, the Church from the Heathen and the Church from the Jews.

Church Fathers counted three Magi and called them kings. They interpreted the Magi and their star as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah as the Light of the World, a universal ruler who would receive homage and tribute from the kings of distant exotic land. (Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalms 68: 32 and 72:9-11) Old Testament figures including the priest-king Melchizedek, the generous Queen of Sheba, and the faithful Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace were also seen as counterparts of the Wise Men from the East.

The Christ child’s adoration by the Magi is called the Epiphany (“Manifestation”) because it announces his mission to redeem all mankind. The three gifts stand for Christ’s threefold saving role. He receives gold as King, frankincense as God, and myrrh as sacrifice. Eastern Christendom links the manifestation of Christ’s birth with his baptism in the Jordan and his first miracle at Cana, three key points in his ministry.

The Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) is older than Christmas. It was celebrated in the East as early as the third century but did not become a separate feast in the West until more than 100 years later. In some Catholic cultures, holiday gifts are exchanged on this day instead of 25 December.

The Magi have been a popular subject since the beginning of Christian art. Pictures and carvings of them survive from the fourth century. At first they were depicted as three identical young men in Persian costume with tunics, leggings, and Soft peaked caps. To emphasize the majesty of the event, Jesus and Mary are splendidly enthroned. The Magi offer their gifts with covered hands or on trays, observing imperial court etiquette. The gold is in the form of a wreath, a traditional present for ancient royalty, and the star is treated as a classical emblem of divine kingship.

By the 10th century, legend had provided the Magi with crowns and contradictory sets of names and attributes. One system often used in Northern Gothic art has Caspar (elderly, with the gold), Melchior (middle-aged, with the frankincense)and Balthasar (young, with the myrrh). They stand for the three known continents of the Old World and present their gifts in order of age.

Early Gothic art shows the Three Kings in contemporary royal dress, but since the Late Middle Ages they have usually been given fantastic “Oriental” costumes. After 1400, Balthasar is often shown as a black African. But Holy Roman Emperors and other rulers of that era were also painted as Balthasar. Aristocrats in Renaissance Italy liked to model for all the Magi and their attendants.

Over the course of the Middle Ages the formality of early Adoration scenes gives way to tenderness, with the kings actually touching the infant Jesus and receiving his blessing. They are laying aside their own crowns to acknowledge his kingship.

The Magi themselves came to be venerated as saints, eventually acquiring separate feast days. They were supposed to have been converted to Christianity by St. Thomas the Apostle. Their alleged relics, discovered in the East by St. Helena in the fourth century, reached Milan around the year 400 and were taken to Cologne in 1164 where they are still preserved in a splendid shrine in the cathedral there. (The arms and banner of the city of Cologne as well as the seals of her archbishop and university feature the crowns of The Three Holy Kings, the city’s patron saints.) The Kings’ protection was traditionally invoked against travel dangers, plague and fever, and sudden death. Their initials CMB were read as a mystic acronym for Christus mundum benedicat(“Christ blesses the world”).

Thus, both Scripture and legend have combined to honor the wise men of the East as universal symbols of mankind adoring God made Man. May these first pilgrims who traveled by the light of a star “guide us to the perfect light.”

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Faith & Family magazine. All rights reserved.

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