From the Dec 2000 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
Wise Men approach from a distance, as shepherds surround the Christ Child and Mary and Joseph. The arrival of eye-catching nativity scenes is much more than a nice picture to put on a Christmas card. This depiction of the Wise Men, or Magi, provides a model for us to follow today. To better understand the meaning of this unusual visit, let’s first take a look at the historical and biblical record.
Who Were the Magi?
Relatively little is known about the Magi who visited the Christ Child. Of all the New Testament writings, only Matthew’s Gospel mentions them. The word “magi” is related to the modern word “magician.” Today, magicians perform sleight-of-hand tricks, but in the ancient world the term applied to sorcerers or astrologers. Often a magician was an advisor to a ruler. For example, the Book of Daniel makes several references to Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Bar-Jesus the magician who attached himself to the Cyprian proconsul Sergius Paulus (cf. Acts 13:6-12). The Magi who journeyed to Christ were adept in astrology and the interpretation of dreams.
It is likely that the Magi who came to Jesus were from Persia, or what is now modern Iran. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, and brought many Jewish captives to Babylon. About 50 years later, the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home to Judah. Some Jews, however, remained in Babylon and taught the Persians about their belief in the coming of the Messiah. It is likely that the Magi who came to Bethlehem knew of the Jewish people’s messianic expectations.
The Magi came to Jesus as outsiders to the Jewish faith. They were not of the Chosen People. They were practitioners of astrology, a discipline that places our fate in the hands of the stars rather that God’s providence. Yet they sought the true God at great personal risk. God called them to know Jesus despite the fact that they were “nonbelievers.” God still reaches out to those outside the Church, regardless of religion. The New Ager, Buddhist, atheist, and other non-Christians still are invited to meet Christ. The Father called the Magi through the Star of Bethlehem. Today, we are to be stars, drawing people
to Christ through our prayer, evangelization, and lifestyle.
Many people today assume there were three Wise Men. How many came to Jesus is uncertain because St. Matthew never gives us an exact number. Early Christian
art depicts between two and eight. The Eastern Christian traditions count as many as 12. In the Western tradition the number of Magi became fixed at three, each one bearing one of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
As Christians meditated upon the Epiphany, they began to appreciate the symbolism of the gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men. It is easy to see how the rarity and luster of gold can symbolize royalty. Frankincense and myrrh are not commonly found in our homes, although they are still used in the manufacture of perfumes today. These two substances come from the resin of trees found in Africa and Arabia. Frankincense was used in the ancient world as medicine and incense in religious ceremonies. Exodus 30:34 and the second chapter of Leviticus prescribe frankincense as an ingredient in the holy incense.
Myrrh was used as a perfume, burned as incense, and used in embalming. The Gospel of John mentions that when the disciples took the body of Jesus off the Cross, Nicodemus “also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about 100 pounds” (Jn. 19:39). Hence, gold symbolized the Magi’s acknowledgement of His kingship, frankincense of His divinity, and myrrh of His redemptive death and suffering.
The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were a free-will offering that expressed their belief in who Jesus is. The faith that motivated the Magi to present their gifts should be the same faith that motivates our gifts to Christ. Whether we place our treasures in the collection basket or offer God the gifts of ourselves through the Eucharist, it should be done as a personal response to Jesus’ divinity, kingship, and suffering for our sins.
When Did They Come?
On Christmas greeting cards the Wise Men are commonly shown approaching the manger where Jesus lay. However, in the biblical account the Magi came quite
sometime after the first Christmas.
The Magi arrived in Jerusalem asking about the child. King Herod grew troubled and “summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared” (Mt. 2:7). The Magi continued on to Bethlehem “and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Mt. 2:11).
St. Matthew makes it clear that the Magi arrived some time after the birth of Jesus. The Wise Men entered a house, not a stable. Furthermore, based on the information given him by the Magi, King Herod figured that Jesus must have been a toddler, as he later ordered all children two years of age or younger in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. Also, travel was slow in ancient times, so it would have taken many months to observe the star’s rising at the time of Jesus’ birth, make travel preparations, and reach Bethlehem.
The timing of the visit reveals much about people’s responses to God’s call. Herod was called “the Great” because of his massive construction programs. He extensively rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the same one destroyed by the Babylonians who unwittingly brought Jewish messianism to Persia. The people of Jerusalem had a generous window of opportunity of up to two years to meet Jesus. But rather than taking advantage of God’s invitation, the builder of the Temple of stone tried to kill the Temple of Jesus’ body. Today God still gives us opportunities to enter into a relationship with Him. A question that
Epiphany confronts us with is “how do we respond today to God’s grace?”
The Feast of the Epiphany
The Catechism has a wonderful explanation of the Magi’s visit:
The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East. . . . In the magi, representatives of the
neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The
magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David,
the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world . . .
If you ever met a proud new daddy, you know that he simply cannot keep the birth of his child a secret. He’ll quickly offer all the details concerning weight, height, hair, eye color, familial resemblances, and so forth. Hours after the birth, the father brings family members to the maternity ward to greet the baby. Next, after the baby leaves the hospital, friends and coworkers get to meet the newborn.
Likewise, God the Father has to tell the whole world about Jesus. The angels first invited the poor Jewish shepherds to the manger. The pagans saw the baby after mother and child came home. The Father excludes no one from His friendship-not even those from a strange religion. Neither should we.
Emil Berendt writes from Wichita, KS.
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