The feast of the Epiphany, or the coming of the wise men to visit Jesus, is one of the most beautiful and meaningful feasts in the calendar of the Catholic church. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” The reason is that this was the “showing forth” of Christ to the Gentiles. The story is found in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 2. Who were these Wise Men? They were almost certainly not kings, as they are often portrayed. They were more likely priests of the Persian people. Not all priests are wise men, but these were.
They were probably men skilled in philosophy, medicine and especially astronomy – the science of the stars. In those ancient days, people believed that their destiny was very much influenced by the stars – as some people still do. But the Magi would appear to have been godly men, not much immersed in the things of this world. They had probably heard of a “Messiah Saviour” who was to come because Daniel, the Prophet, had been a prisoner in their part of the world. Also, the Jews had been exiled in that region and their belief in the coming of a Saviour would have spread. So the Magi, or “Wise Men,” were always studying the stars and trying to interpret their movements.
Then, one night, they noticed a particularly brilliant star, which they had never seen before. They concluded that this star was a sign that the Messiah had come and they decided that it was their duty to go and pay him homage. They set out on a long, long journey on camels and – as far as we can judge – the star moved before them and led them to the city of Jerusalem. It then disappeared and they were lost. So they did the sensible thing – they asked where the city hall was and who the king was. They felt sure that he would know all about the “new king and would assist them.” The fact that they did not know the kind of man Herod was indicates that they must have come from a long way off.
Who was Herod the Great? He was born in 73 B.C., the son of an Idumean named Antipater and an Arab princess. He had 10 wives and seven sons. He was useful to the Romans, who were ruling Palestine and he was appointed King of Judea, a position which he held at the time of the birth of Christ. He was not “fully Jewish” and would not have been accepted by the Jews. He was a very able man, but a very cruel one. Anyone who stood up to him was automatically eliminated. His worst trait was his jealous and suspicious nature. He suspected anyone who had character of being a threat to his rule. He had one of his wives, Miriam, murdered because he thought she was plotting against him. He also had three of his sons killed. So, when these three (though we are not certain exactly how many there were) important-looking people arrived with the news that a new king had been born, Herod was immediately worried. He knew the Jewish belief that a new king would come, so he sent for the Jewish religious leaders and asked them where the new king was to be born. They quoted for him the prophecy of Micah that the Saviour would be born in the city of Bethlehem. So, Herod called the Magi again and expressed interest and pleasure at the birth of the new king. He told them to go to Bethlehem and find the king and then return to him with news, so that he could go and pay homage also.
The Wise Men seem to have believed him and did not suspect his real motives. The star appeared again and led them to Bethlehem – only six miles from Jerusalem. By this time the Holy Family had probably moved to a house. The Bible says, “It stopped over where the child was.” They entered and “found the child with Mary his mother.” The Gospel tells us that “falling down they adored him.”
There is a great lesson for us in this. They would naturally have expected to find the new king in a palace, surrounded by servants and wealth. But they find a poor little babe with a humble mother. What is the lesson? They take God as they find him. God sometimes comes to us in ways that we do not expect – and we do not recognize him!
The Magi gave the Christ child treasurers or gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is great significance in these gifts – gold is a gift for a king, incense for a priest, myrrh was the sign of suffering. “Jesus is a king. He is also a priest and He is the suffering servant,” who died for us on the Cross. The Magi must have been inspired on their choice of gifts.