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Wise Men from the East | Sandra Miesel | The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
We Three Kings of Orient
Bearing gifts we traverse
afar. . . .
Who were these gift-bearing
kings, these Wise Men of the East? What has their mission meant to Christians
across the ages?
The Wise Men—not yet
called kings—make only a single appearance in Holy Scripture. St.
Matthew's Gospel (Mt 2:1-12) tells of their arrival in Jerusalem shortly after
the birth of Jesus. They have come seeking the newborn King of the Jews because
they had seen his star rise in the East. Herod, the current ruler, knows
nothing of an upstart princeling but learns that prophecies place him in
Bethlehem. Herod directs the Wise Men to search there for the Child and keep
him informed. Following their star, the Wise Men find Jesus with his Mother.
They worship him and bestow gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned by
an angel, they do not reveal the Child's location to jealous Herod but return
secretly to their own land.
In ancient texts of Scripture the Wise Men are Magoi in Greek
and Magi in Latin. The singular form, Magos/Magus, is the source
of our English word "magician" but had multiple meanings in Biblical times. A
magus could be a Zoroastrian priest from Persia, an occultist, a magician, or a
charlatan. Because the New Testament Magi study the stars, their mystic wisdom
presumably includes astrology. Hence some recent Bible translations call them
"astrologers," a less evocative term than the more traditional "Wise Men."
Some early Christians equated
the Magi with Chaldean star-readers from Babylon, masters of the occult
familiar throughout the Roman Empire. St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian thought
they were Arabians but most believers in Patristic times took their Persian
origin for granted.
Church Fathers were quick to
see deeper symbolism in this curious episode, first through its Old Testament
parallels. Origen suggested that the Magi were descendants of the pagan prophet
Balaam who had predicted that "a star shall rise out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17).
Other Old Testament figures including the priest-king Melchizedek (Gen.
14:18-20), the generous Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs. 10), and the faithful Three
Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Dan. 3) were also seen as counterparts of the
Wise Men from the East.
Strangers who worship the new
King of Judah and bring gifts fulfill Messianic prophecies. "The kings of
Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall
bring tribute" (Ps. 72:10). "All they from Sheba shall come, bearing gold and
frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord." (Isa. 60:6) Because the
Scriptures speak of tributary kings, Tertullian called the Magi kings. Origen
specified that they numbered three to match their gifts and their named
kingdoms. St. John Chrysostom preached about twelve Wise Men but his
interpretation failed to find favor.
These foreigners, the first
Gentiles to see the Light, recognize what Herod and the Temple priesthood
cannot: the newborn Savior. The wealthy, learned, alien Magi of St. Matthew's
Gospel complement the poor, ignorant, local shepherds of St Luke's Gospel.
Foreshadowing the universality of the Church, these Gentiles and Jews worship
God Incarnate to show that salvation is offered to all men.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons was the
first Church Father to equate the Wise Men's gifts of gold, frankincense, and
myrrh with Christ's roles as King, God, and Sacrifice. This became the dominant
reading, still familiar through the beautiful Victorian Christmas carol, "We
Three Kings of Orient Are." But other interpretations also appeared in which
the gifts stand for the virtues of faith, chastity, and purity of heart or else
for almsgiving, prayer, and mortification.
The Christ Child's adoration
by the Magi is known as his Epiphany ("Manifestation") because it announces his
mission to redeem the world. Ancient Christendom spoke of multiple
manifestations (initially including the Nativity) by linking the revelation of
the newborn Christ with his later baptism in the Jordan and his first miracle
at Cana. These key points in his mission, which were imagined to have occurred
on the same calendar date, also used to be celebrated in the pre-Vatican II
Roman breviary. As an Epiphany antiphon at Vespers proclaims, "We honor the
holy day adorned with three miracles: today the star led the Magi to the crib:
today wine was made from water for a wedding: today Christ willed to be
baptized by John in the Jordan." In medieval Europe, Epiphany was often
connected with the miracle of the loaves and fishes and with the raising of
The traditional date of
Epiphany is January 6th although in some places, including the
United States, the feast is transferred to the nearest Sunday. Epiphany is an
older feast than Christmas for it is attested in the East from the first half
of the third century, at least 75 years before Christmas is mentioned as a holy
day in Rome.
By the late fourth century
Christmas was also being celebrated in the East so Epiphany lost its Nativity
connection there. The Baptism of the Lord became the chief focus of Epiphany
and the subject of its special feast day icon. The public manifestation of
Christ as the Divine "beloved Son" outranked the private homage of the Magi,
who were relegated to the background of Nativity icons.
Nevertheless, the Adoration
of the Magi has been a popular subject for artists since Late Antiquity. The
earliest surviving examples are catacomb paintings from the second and third
centuries and carvings on stone coffins from the first half of the fourth
century. On the coffins, three nearly identical Magi process toward the
enthroned Madonna and Child. Their gifts allude to the alms the deceased person
had given in his lifetime. Famous mosaics depicting the Magi also appear in the
churches of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome (440) and S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna
(561). The Magi are represented in exotic "Eastern" garb, wearing tunics,
leggings, and soft peaked caps. They observe imperial Roman court etiquette by
presenting their gifts with covered hands or on trays. The gold is often in the
form of a royal wreath and the star appears as an emblem of divine kingship.
By the tenth century, Western
artists are portraying the Wise Men with crowns. They grow distinguishable
because they have come to stand for the three ages of man, the three known
continents of the Old World, and three races descended from the sons of Noah.
In later medieval art the Magi lay aside their crowns to interact with the
Christ Child and receive his blessing. Their garments become increasingly
fantastic and their faces are often modeled on contemporary rulers. By the
fourteenth century, the youngest Magus is portrayed as a black African in many
Northern European paintings. In subsequent centuries, other racial types joined
the trio, including East Indians, Asians, Incas, and Canadian Indians, so that
the Wise Men could represent all nations.
The thirteenth century Golden
Legend gives the Magi's names in
Greek as Apellius, Amerius, and Damascus; in Hebrew as Galgalat, Malgalat, and
Serchin; and in Latin as Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior—the favorite
set. There are inconsistencies about which Magus is which but in Germanic
lands, Casper (gold) is elderly; Melchior (frankincense) is middle-aged; and
Balthasar (myrrh) is young. The gifts are presented in order of age.
The center of the Magi's cult
is Cologne. The cathedral there boasts a splendid golden shrine holding their
relics that has drawn swarms of pilgrims since the twelfth century. The Kings'
protection is traditionally invoked against travel dangers, plague, fever, and sudden
death. Their initials C+M+B form a protective acronym for Christus mundum
benedicat ("Christ blesses the
world"). The faithful carry this symbol on holy cards or chalk it over their
doors to ward off evil.
The alleged remains of the
Magi are claimed to have been discovered in the East by St. Helena and brought
to Milan in 400, whence they were looted by Frederick Barbarossa in 1162 and
given to Cologne. Historian Patrick Geary has argued persuasively that Milan
never had any relics of the Wise Men. Yet the bones in the shrine were wrapped
in genuine purple silk from St. Helena's lifetime so some ancient parties
unknown have been passing as the Magi for eight centuries.
Regardless of authenticity,
the Three Holy Kings have had great cultural impact on Cologne as the city's
male patron saints. Their crowns appear on the arms and banner of the city as
well as on the seals of her archbishop and university. The Magi themselves bear
heraldic arms. Caspar's are a golden star and crescent on a blue field;
Melchior's six gold stars on a blue field, and Balthasar's a red-clad Moor
holding a lance with pennant on a golden field.
Thus Scripture and legend
have combined to honor the Wise Men of the East as universal symbols of mankind
adoring God Incarnate. May these first pilgrims who traveled by the light of a
star "guide us to the Perfect Light."
Originally published in the Catholic Herald newspaper, January 2007. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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Sandra Miesel is the co-author, with Pete Vere, of
Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy and co-author, with Carl E. Olson, of the best selling
The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing
the Errors in The Da Vinci Code. She holds masters degrees
in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.
Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press,
chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis
magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut.
Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN,
and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited
fiction. Sandra and her late husband John raised three children.
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