“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea
In the days of Herod the King, behold, there
came wisemen from the east to Jerusalem…”
The re-telling of Matthew’s story has been, through the centuries, one of the most cherished parts of our Christmas Celebration. And while there have been many different interpretations of the story, its historical accuracy is not as important as the way it presents, in popular form, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
For Matthew, the adoration of the magi reaffirmed the teachings that “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
Yet who were the wise men? Where did they come from? Why did they travel so far to pay homage to a little babe?
Magi, from the Old Persian word meaning wise men, magicians, or astrologers, were knowledgeable of the heavens, interpreters of dreams. They were likely from Persia, Mesopotamia or Arabia, and were perhaps Zoroastrian priests.
As the story tells, when the wise men observed the appearance of a new star in the heavens, they considered it an omen and a fulfillment of Messianic prophesies. Yet they did not know where the Messiah would be born. Only upon traveling to Jerusalem, and receiving an audience with Herod, did they learn that the scriptures foretold Christ’s birth in Bethlehem of Judaea.
Matthew’s narrative does not mention how many magi there were. The 3rd century theologian Origen declared there were three, probably because that was the number of gifts bestowed upon the Christ child. In the East, though, the number of magi is set at twelve, and in art, especially during the Renaissance, they are depicted as anywhere from two to eight.
Until the sixth century, the magi remained unnamed. By that time the tradition of their kingship was wide spread, and in the West, “The Three Kings” became the common synonym for the Magi, and they were accorded the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
Gaspar, “The White One” is said to have given the gift of gold—perhaps his own crown. Melchior is often portrayed as the tall and stately “King of Light” the bearer of frankincense. And Balthazar, “The Lord of Treasures” is said to have placed myrrh at the foot of the manger.
In some interpretations, gold signifies the Kingly office of the Child, frankincense His God-head, and myrrh, that He would die, bringing us sorrow and suffering.
Today, as in the past, the presence of The Three Kings adds immeasurably to the meaning of the Christmas story. For the awe and reverence of the majestic figures makes all the more poignant the adoration of the Christchild.
Wonderful God, in sending Christ as the Light of the World, You revealed Your glory to the nations. You sent a star to guide seekers of wisdom to Bethlehem, that they might worship the Christ. Thank you for leading us to the Babe of Bethlehem, that we too might bow before Him in reverence. Amen.