By Fr. William P. Saunders, Herald Columnist
Arlington Catholic Herald, VA
Jan 6 2004
(From the issue of 1/8/04)
Who were the Magi? I saw a special on WETA at Christmas time about them, and was wondering what information there is from a totally religious perspective. — A reader in Springfield
The Gospel of Matthew mentions the Magi who came from the East to worship the newborn Christ child (cf. Mt 2:1-12). Exactly who the magi were though remains somewhat of a mystery.
Oftentimes, the English translations of the Bible use the word astrologers for magi. In Greek, the original language of the Gospel, the word magos (magoi, plural) has four meanings: (1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination, and spiritual mediation;
(3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before mentioned practices. From these possible definitions and the description provided in the gospel, the magi were probably Persian priest-astrologers who could interpret the stars, particularly the significance of the star that proclaimed the birth of the Messiah. (Even the ancient historian Herodotus (d. 5th century B.C.) would attest to the astrological prowess of the priestly class of Persia.)
More importantly, the visit of the magi fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament: Balaam prophesied about the coming Messiah marked by a
star: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel…” (Number 24:17). Psalm 72 speaks of how the Gentiles will come to worship the Messiah: “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him” (72:10-11). Isaiah also prophesied the gifts: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Is 60:6).
St. Matthew recorded that the Magi brought three gifts, each also having a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; frankincense, the gift for a priest; and myrrh– a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die. St. Irenaeus (d. 202) in his Adversus haereses offered the following interpretation for the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh respectively: King, God, and Suffering Redeemer as well as virtue, prayer, and suffering.
Traditionally, we think of the three magi as the three kings. We usually have the three kings in our nativity sets. We even sing, “We three kings of orient are … .” Here the three gifts, Psalm 72, and the rising star in the East converge to render the Magi as three kings traveling from the East.
Actually, the earliest tradition is inconsistent as to the number of the Magi. The Eastern tradition favored twelve Magi. In the West, several of the early Church fathers — including Origen, St. Leo the Great, and St. Maximus of Turin — accepted three Magi. Early Christian painting in Rome found at the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus depicts two magi and at the cemetery of St. Domitilla, four.
Since the seventh century in the Western Church, the magi have been identified as Caspar (sometimes spelled Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. A work called the Excerpta et Collectanea attributed to St. Bede (d. 735) wrote, “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard … who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned … honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar… by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.” An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne read, “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in A.D. 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on Jan. 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6, aged 112; and St. Caspar on Jan. 11, aged 109.” The Roman Martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi’s respective feast days.
Emperor Zeno brought the relics of the magi from Persia to Constantinople in 490. Relics (whether the same or others) appeared in Milan much later and were kept at the Basilica of St. Eustorgius. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who plundered Italy, took the relics to Cologne in 1162, where they remain secure to this day in a beautiful reliquary housed in the Cathedral.
Even though some mystery remains to the identity of the magi, the Church respects their act of worship: The Council of Trent, when underscoring the reverence that must be given to the Holy Eucharist, decreed, “The faithful of Christ venerate this most holy sacrament with the worship of latria which is due to the true God…. For in this sacrament we believe that the same God is present whom the eternal Father brought into the world, saying of Him, ‘Let all God’s angels worship Him.’ It is the same God whom the Magi fell down and worshiped, and finally, the same God whom the apostles adored in Galilee as Scripture says” (Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 5).
Having celebrated Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, we too must be mindful of our duty to adore our Lord through prayer, worship, and self-sacrificing good works. St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 389) preached, “Let us remain on in adoration; and to Him, who, in order to save us, humbled Himself to such a degree of poverty as to receive our body, let us offer not only incense, gold and myrrh…, but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes” (Oratio, 19).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.