As we celebrate this last Sunday feast of Christmas, the Epiphany (the baptism of Jesus, which is celebrated tomorrow, is the official conclusion of the Christmas season), it might be helpful to look deeper into this story from Matthew’s gospel to better understand what is really going on. So, some “trivia” questions.
Sometimes we say “The three wise men.” Sometimes, “The Magi.” Sometimes, “Three kings.” Sometimes “Three astrologers.” Which is it?
Matthew uses the word “Magi” indicating a Persian priestly caste of the religious cult named Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, hence the Magi are sometimes referred to as astrologers. Little surprise that they were following a star. Why “wise men?” Because their study of the stars indicated they came from a well educated strata of society. And why “kings?” Early Christian tradition remembered the writings of Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, describing how the kings of the world would worship the coming messiah. “All the kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.”
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? And what is Myrrh anyway?
These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. It is the Magi’s way of acknowledging the divinity and kingship of Jesus, gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh, a costly anointing oil, a prefiguring of Jesus’ death and embalming—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”
Matthew 2:1 – “…behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem…” Why did Matthew mention “the east?” This indicates that these men were not Jews. In Jewish eyes, they were pagans. So what is remarkable is that pagans could recognize the divinity of Christ before the true believers ever did.
Why do we say that there were three Magi? Early Christian tradition assumed there were three Magi simply because there were three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially in the Syriac church, the tradition is that there were as many as twelve Magi.
Matthew 2: 10-11 – They (the Magi) were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.” House? I thought Jesus was born in a manger. The manger is present only in Luke’s gospel; in Matthew’s gospel, the Holy Family is in a house. Through artistic interpretation as seen in every crèche, these two traditions are combined into one scene, with the Magi (Matthew, not Luke) visiting the manger (Luke, not Matthew). Isn’t this fascinating? Wouldn’t you love to know more? Great! Come join “Bible Buddies” weekly meetings or “Faith, Food and Fellowship” monthly gatherings and dive more deeply into our faith.
Happy New Year! Fr. Jim