We often hear the expression, “Well, Christmas is over.” But, Christmas is never over. The celebration of Christmas is over, but Christ is still with us, just as we are still with our families even after we have celebrated our birthday. We are reminded of this in a special way by the feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated an Jan. 6 (as I write this). The word “epiphany” means a manifestation and is a reminder of how the story of the greatest birth of all times was spread through the world.
The coming of the Magi is briefly related in Matthew, Chapter 2: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to pay Him homage’ … And there in front of them was the Star they had seen rising; it went forward and halted over the place where the Child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight and going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and falling down on their knees they did him homage. Then opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” They left for their land by a different route and we never hear of them again. But they were the first to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Who were these men, from where did they come and why? The word “Magi” is the plural of the Latin word Magus, which means a member of a priestly caste in Persia and other Eastern countries, and can be translated as “a wise man.” The Magi are often portrayed in paintings as kings, with crowns on their heads. This is not correct. They were very learned people who studied the stars and believed they could tell the future from the different movements of the stars or the sudden appearance of a new star in the sky. They also believed in a Creator, who had created the stars and ruled the world.
The next obvious question is, why did they venture out on this long, long journey? To put it briefly, the Jewish people had travelled widely in the Eastern countries and would have spread the word that a Messiah (Liberator or Redeemer) was expected. For instance, the prophet Daniel spent many years in Persia – from where the Magi probably came – and he would not have been silent regarding the expected Messiah. And so the Magi would have been studying the stars for signs that the Expected One was coming or had come. Then when a star appeared in the heavens, which was larger and brighter than the Magi had ever seen, they concluded, undoubtedly with the help of God’s grace, that this was a sign that the Messiah had appeared on earth and they decided to follow the star and greet the Redeemer.
How many went on the journey? Of the number we are not told but as they presented the Child with three gifts, it has been assumed by scholars that their number was three, a conclusion accepted for over 2,000 years. They have even been given names – Melchior, Gasper and Balthazar – which are not in Scripture.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that after they had left King Herod, the Star appeared again and led them to the house in which the Holy Family was now lodging: “And entering the house, they saw the Child with his mother and falling down, they did Him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrh.” The nature of the gifts is of significance. Scriptural scholars tell us that gold signifies royalty, frankincense divinity and myrrh suffering. All were applicable to the Divine Baby who lay before them.
I believe that there is a great lesson for us in the Gospel story. Rarely has there been faith like that of these Wisemen. Rarely has faith been so severely tested and so magnificently triumphant. By their faith, they left their homes and country and followed the star. By their faith they recognized in the Babe of Bethlehem, the desired of nations, the saviour of the world; in accepting this child, enveloped in obscurity, poverty and weakness as their King and Lord, they accepted his standard of value, his concept of life and his principles of action.
God manifested Himself to them in a manner for which all their previous life, their tastes, the customs of their country, left them utterly unprepared. They must have expected an epiphany of grandeur and they were confronted with one of abject poverty. Their purity of heart, their sincerity of mind, their love of truth and reality and finally their great humility were what made them receptive of the wonderful gift of faith given them by God.