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Journeying with the Magi
The Word Among Us ^ | 12-03 | Louise Perrotta/Dorothy Day Library

Posted on 12/29/2003 2:00:42 PM PST by Salvation

Journeying with the Magi

Louise Perrotta

You want to cheer when the magi appear on the horizon in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel. After all, the Savior of the world, God in the flesh, has been born! History’s central event has taken place! And although Jesus slipped in among us more like an undercover agent than a conquering hero, how right and fitting that a special delegation would make a special effort to welcome the newborn King.

Perhaps, like me, you feel indebted to the “wise men from the East” as you read the twelve verses where they make their one-time appearance in Scripture. They are like those strangers who go the extra mile to help someone you love when you can’t be there yourself. It’s as if they are stand-ins for us.

Patrons and Pioneers. Matthew presents the magi as trailblazers. In his Gospel, they are the very first to offer Jesus the adoration reserved for God, the worship that the disciples will offer him after the resurrection (28:9,17). Not only that: These pilgrims stand at the head of a long line of non-Jewish believers that will also include Roman centurions, a persistent Canaanite mother (Matthew 8:5; 27:54; 15:22)—and most of us! As St. Augustine wrote, the wise men are “the firstfruits of the Gentiles,” the first of the multitudes who Jesus said would come “from east and west” to “eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Since the great majority of Jesus’ followers have also been Gentiles, is it any wonder that Christians have long felt drawn to these travelers from afar? Already at the beginning of the second century, artists were depicting the “adoration of the magi” on the walls of the Roman catacombs. For centuries, it was the most popular Nativity scene in Christian art, far eclipsing Luke’s picture of the shepherds at the manger (Matthew 2:16-20).

Still today, the wise men receive special tribute. We remember them on Christmas, and especially on the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the manifestation of God’s glory revealed in Jesus. This “twelfth day of Christmas” is, in many cultures, a festive occasion marked by gift-giving, a “three kings cake,” and processions. In New York City, for example, the Latino community gathers every January 6 for a colorful parade that features giant “king” figures leading a retinue that includes camels from a city zoo and legions of schoolchildren in magi costume.

A Mysterious Trio. Following the wise men in a procession is a graphic way of representing their role as models for our own inner journey to God. But how well do we know these guides? They are easily the most exotic, mysterious figures in our Nativity sets!

Scripture provides only the sparsest information: The visitors are wise men who know the stars; travel from the East; and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh before disappearing into the night. Matthew might be surprised at how they appear in our Christmas carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are. For one thing, he never specified how many magi there were. Many assumed that because they gave three gifts, there were three of them. But various other traditions have proposed two, four, eight, and even twelve. Further, Matthew never called them kings. This view developed out of Christian reflection on passages like Isaiah 60:1-6 and Psalm 72:10-11,15. He never supplied names and distinguishing characteristics: Young Caspar, middle-aged Balthasar, and aged Mel-chior made their first appearance in sixth-century writings.

Over the centuries, curiosity about the mysterious magi prompted truly fanciful speculation about their lives and their visit with the Holy Family. Some legends said that Mary gave them Jesus’ swaddling clothes, others said they received a magical stone. Medieval works traced the history of their gift of gold, which they suggested was used in Scripture’s important finacial transactions—from Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave (Genesis 23:16) to Judas’ payment for betraying Jesus! An ancient saints’ calendar said they died in Armenia in a.d. 55, within weeks of celebrating one last Christmas together. Even the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) got into the act, contending that the magi were from Persia and that he had visited their tombs fifty miles southwest of Tehran. A more widely known European tradition assigns their burial place to the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.

On the Trail of “Magi from the East.” So what can we know about the wise men? What can we learn from them? Despite the apparent poverty of detail in Matthew’s Gospel, his portrayal suggests a wealth of themes for reflection.

Matthew calls them magi, magoi, from an ancient Greek word that probably originally referred to a priestly tribe in western Persia. By the time of Jesus, however, “magi” was a more elastic term. It could indicate sorcerers, charlatans, or false prophets of any nationality (Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11), but also genuine scholars and seekers after wisdom.

Matthew’s magi are of the admirable type. Unlike King Herod, they did not have the benefit of the revelation contained in the Jewish Scriptures (Matthew 2:4-6). Even so, because they were hungry for truth, God met them in their study of astrology, which was not distinguished from astronomy in the ancient world. As they searched the night sky, they were drawn to Jesus through a puzzling star. Was it a supernova? Halley’s comet? A rare conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars? Some other astral phenomenon? Today’s astronomers are no less puzzled!

God guided these astrologers as he still guides everyone who seeks him sincerely, even when their explorations are somewhat off-center. As Scripture scholar Fr. George Montague points out, this is something to keep in mind in our relationships with people of other religions: “We must respect the ways that they seek God, aware that the intensity of their longing for God may well shame our smug self-contentedness.” At the same time, he says, we must remember that Christianity does have a unique message: to assume otherwise is “to reject the very essence of gospel—which means good news to be shared.”

The magi expressed their longing for truth by undertaking a long and undoubtedly arduous journey “from the East.” We wonder about their home addresses. Did they hail from Babylon, which was a renowned center of astronomical study? Or were they from Persia (now Iran), as the word magi suggests and as many Church Fathers thought? In early Christian art, they sport Persian fashions—trousers, caps, and belted tunics with long sleeves. Art historians point out, however, that this was a standard way of portraying anyone from the East, whether Persian or not.

The earliest recorded view is from St. Justin Martyr, who insisted—nine times in a treatise he wrote around a.d. 160—that the magi were from Arabia. Justin could well have had direct access to traditions preserved among Christian Jews in Palestine, some scholars believe, because he grew up in the city now called Nablus, in the West Bank. Then, too, according to Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, Old Testament references to “people of the East” generally refer to desert Arabs, who had a reputation for wisdom. And finally there is the evidence of the magi’s gifts of gold and spices—all known as products of Arabia.
While absolute certainty is impossible, Justin Martyr’s viewpoint is especially tantalizing today. With prospects for peace in the land of Jesus’ birth looking so slim, it is moving—even hopeful—to think that the first people who hailed the Jewish Messiah just might have been Arabs.

In Good Company. Wherever the wise men began their journey, their persistent and wholehearted search calls us to keep moving toward Jesus ourselves. Their example challenges us to consider whether we have allowed ourselves to get too bogged down in routines, mindsets, and personal comforts to make much headway on our journey to God. Are we still ready and willing to pick up that daily cross and walk the narrow path to life?

Matthew indicates that the wise men pursued truth in various ways—through nature, consultation with others, and Scripture—and that God enabled them to recognize it when they found it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes the joyful discovery this way: “They fall on their faces, they revere him as king, they worship him as God. He who led them has instructed them too. He who urged them on by means of the star has himself taught them in their inmost heart.” What about us? Are we as open to God’s leading, as ready to commit ourselves as our brother magi?

The magi presented Jesus with a sampling of the ancient world’s costliest gifts. They gave the best. Finding much to ponder in these offerings, the Church Fathers often interpreted them as symbols of what every Christian is called to present to God: the gold of charity and good works, the incense of prayer and faith, the myrrh of purifying suffering and belief in the resurrection. During this season of Advent, we might consider how to make such an offering in our own lives. While it is always right to turn to God for what we need, this season encourages us to find ways of giving him what we value most, beginning with our very selves.

As we give ourselves to Jesus, we will find ourselves side by side with the magi. We will be, as Dorothy Day put it, in the company of those few who “made up for the neglect of the crowd” in Jesus’ earthly life:

The shepherds did it, their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ.

The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts that the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe. . .

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with.*

When Jesus came into the world, the magi were our representatives, welcoming and worshiping him as we were not able to do. Now, it’s up to us. Every day, we can welcome, reverence, and serve Jesus in other people. We can go the extra mile, seek him joyfully, and wholeheartedly embrace our role in God’s saving plan for the world.

“We can do it too, exactly as the wise men did.” This Advent, then, let’s do it! n

*Taken from The Dorothy Day Library on the Web (

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KEYWORDS: catholiclist; child; christ; east; frankincense; gifts; gold; gospel; journey; magi; matthew; myrrh; worship
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For your information and discussion.
1 posted on 12/29/2003 2:00:43 PM PST by Salvation
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To: All
**The earliest recorded view is from St. Justin Martyr, who insisted—nine times in a treatise he wrote around a.d. 160—that the magi were from Arabia.**

An interesting thought in today's world.
2 posted on 12/29/2003 2:01:27 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: *Catholic_list; father_elijah; nickcarraway; SMEDLEYBUTLER; Siobhan; Lady In Blue; attagirl; ...
Catholic Discussion Ping!

Please notify me via Freepmail if you would like to be added to or removed from the Catholic Discussion Ping list.

3 posted on 12/29/2003 2:03:50 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: All
Epiphany -- January 4, 2004
4 posted on 12/29/2003 2:05:23 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation
that the magi were from Arabia.

Whether from Arabia or Persia, theirs was a very different culture than that of the followers of Mad Mo.

5 posted on 12/29/2003 2:12:25 PM PST by ArrogantBustard
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To: Salvation
As I was reading Matthew's account in the Bible I noticed soon after the magis presented their gifts Mary and Joseph was told in a dream to go to Egypt. Being poor these gifts most likely financed their trip and help substain them. The gold would get them there and spices and myrth (used to embalm people) would have been highly prized in Egypt where they mummified their dead. This, of course is pure speculation on my part. But it struck me how God provides our needs when He calls us to do His will.
6 posted on 12/29/2003 2:16:36 PM PST by HarleyD
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To: Salvation; american colleen; sinkspur; Lady In Blue; Polycarp; narses; SMEDLEYBUTLER; redhead; ...
What a wonderful story!! Thank you for posting this story.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.


O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.


Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.


Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.


Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.


7 posted on 12/29/2003 4:19:42 PM PST by NYer (Is Your Mass Valid?
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To: NYer
And thanks for the picture and verses!
8 posted on 12/29/2003 4:55:00 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: HarleyD
Additional legends to go along with your conjectures. It's hard for us to tell what is legend and/or true story.

December 28, 2003, Sunday, Feast of the Holy Family

Legends of the Holy Family in Egypt

The Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and their stay there gave rise to fascinating tales composed centuries later.

It is said that their journey to Egypt was blessed with many miracles – lions and leopards wagging their tails in homage, palm trees bending down to give them fruit.

Legends dating back to the fifth century say that the Holy Family stayed in the city of Matariyah, just northeast of the present-day Cairo. One story says that as a child, Jesus grew balsam trees producing balm that cured almost anything, including snakebite.

Another tradition is that the family passed through a city about 150 miles up the Nile and as they did, the pagan idol statues bowed to them.

A monastery further up the Nile claims to be on the site where the Holy Family lived for six months. One of the apocryphal gospels tells the story that while there, two robbers set upon the Holy Family, but one repented when he saw Mary’s tears.

These turned out to be the same two robbers, goes the legend, who were later crucified with Jesus. The one, who back in Egypt, had been moved by Mary’s tears, ended up to be the “Good Thief” on the cross.

9 posted on 12/29/2003 4:57:30 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: HarleyD
And some additional thoughts to ponder:

The Holy Family

Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small hill town up north. Such towns were a kinship network. Most everyone would have been a relative of Jesus. They lived in close proximity and were part of each other’s lives.

When we think of the family of Jesus, we can delete the image of Jesus sitting quietly with Mary while Joseph made chairs in his carpenter shop. The Holy Family lived in close quarters with cousins, in-laws, shirttail relatives of all kinds. There was no getting away from “family.”

Here’s a question: When extended families come together, do most people look forward to it, or do they find it difficult?

That’s not easy to answer. We worry about the relative who is likely to get drunk. We aren’t sure what to do about divorced and re-married members who bring in-laws we don’t know very well. Plus there’s always someone who’s currently on the outs with other family members. It’s quite a mix.

It takes a lot of virtue and patience to be part of such an extended family…a lot of indirect kindness that may or may not have an effect. We do our best and try to be kind, knowing that we can’t single-handedly change things around.

Jesus was part of an extended family no different from mine.

10 posted on 12/29/2003 4:58:21 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: All
The Magi
11 posted on 12/30/2003 7:46:50 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation

12 posted on 01/02/2004 8:41:44 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation
Epiphany Bump!
13 posted on 01/04/2004 6:41:34 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation
Great picture. I really like it. Who is the artist? Love the way everytrhing in the portrait points to Jesus.
14 posted on 01/04/2004 6:44:46 AM PST by drstevej
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To: drstevej
Don't know the artist. But you might check the Hungarian Gallery. I have found many pictures there before. This one was posted on EWTN.
15 posted on 01/04/2004 7:18:55 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation
I looked on EWTN and didn't see it either. This portrait honors Mary and presents her relationship to her Son in a way I really appreciate. Thanks for posting it. I'd love to get a print for my office.
16 posted on 01/04/2004 7:36:21 AM PST by drstevej
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To: Salvation
I emailed the EWTN webmaster and asked who the artist was. Will let you know what I hear.
17 posted on 01/04/2004 7:40:35 AM PST by drstevej
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To: drstevej
And I emailed my son who had the url for the Hungarian Gallery with wonderful art.

Will let you know what that url is when I get it.
18 posted on 01/04/2004 8:15:44 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: drstevej
Epiphany by Giotto

19 posted on 01/04/2004 9:06:57 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation
I like that portrait too. Except I prefer the gold halos not be added. I especially appreciate Joseph's presence noted. I think he often gets overlooked and he was a man of faith and pirty.

Oh, and I almost forgot

20 posted on 01/04/2004 9:33:50 PM PST by drstevej
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