Skip to comments.Wise Men from the East [Ecumenical - with a question]
Posted on 01/04/2009 3:33:08 PM PST by NYer
We Three Kings of Orient are,
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 Lazarus.
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."
Today, in the Maronite Church, we celebrated the Sunday of the Finding (of our Lord) in the Temple. On Tuesday we will celebrate Epiphany - a Holy Day of Obligation. It struck me odd that the liturgical calendar would place Epiphany after the Finding in the Temple. The explanation was quite illuminating - an epiphany! Epiphany means revelation or manifestation. In the East, the feast of Epiphany represents Christs manifestation in the River Jordan when He was baptized. It is for that reason that holy water is blessed and distributed on that day. This is the more ancient understanding of Epiphany in the Church.
Its interesting to see once again the impact of VCII. Do you suppose that one day the Catholic Church, both West and East, will come up with a standardized calendar?
According to the preist’s homily today, the Magi were either from Iran or what is now Iraq.
So the word magi/magus comes from Latin....the Arabic word is majus. Interesting similarity...
The only oath that a German mercenary soldier (the famous Landsknechten) could be counted on to keep was the one sworn on Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They called them "the Dead Men of Köln".
Interesting ... did he say how he arrived at that conclusion? Is it possible one may have been from Syria and or Egypt?
A map of the Parthian Empire shows their westward reach:
The “wise men from the East” were probably Zoroastrians, religious scholars who were not themselves Hebrew, but shared many of the same beliefs. Before there was Christianity, there were those among the “gentiles” who believed and were strongly invested in the coming of the Messiah. This was probably rooted in the close association with the Persians (Farsi) and the Hebrew tribes some 2,500 years ago, during the “Babylonian Captivity”, before the return of the Hebrew tribes to Jerusalem.
And this was LONG before that apostasy that arose in the 7th Century AD, known as “Islam”.
Islam, by force of arms, utterly destroyed the Zoroastrians, and the few remaining practitioners of that faith reside today in India. They are not Hindus, they are not in the least interested in what Muslims have to offer, and they do not proselytize at all.
When the devout Muslims during their celebrations where beating their chests and heads, crying and screaming, emenating an aura of darkness and gloom, the Zoroastrians were celebrating their peaceful and joyful traditions, laughing and singing.
The contrast between that Arab cult and the true Iranian culture couldn't have been more obvious.
"We three kings of Orientar."
My sister spent so much time in Kölner Dom about 20 years ago...
Over the years, she has spoken to me about those times in ways that are very difficult to describe... because the things she was saying were difficult for her explain... the closest kept things... right down to the very most beautiful part of the soul.
Epiphany is the most beautiful of all moments. It is granted by the Savior.
Thank you for this post. It has been deeply meaningful.
Who were these gift-bearing kings, these Wise Men of the East?
"I don't know." is probably the best answer here. No firm number, and "from the east" can be anything from Parthia to Cathay.
The diaspora stemming from the Babylonian captivity had surely splashed Jews, and Jewish scripture and writings, all over the east. I've seen speculation that they might be from a school founded by Daniel. Only speculation.
I'm more interested in what Matthew is doing, telling us about them.
This brings back the episode. I worked in a small software development and consulting lab, and on Friday the boss gave us free lunch. The free lunch combined the two companies that he owned, so often we would see new people at lunch, that we otherwise would bnot be familiar with, from that other, larger, company.
I shared the ride to the other company's lunch room with a Hindu friend of mine, whom I'll call Gupta. The lunch was over and I waited for Gupta to finish a conversation he was having with another Hindu gentleman in Gujarati. I positioned myself at the table and followed the conversation in the language I didn't know, sort of like dogs do. Finally, Gupta introduced me and we all switched to English. The other Hindu gentleman was very, very Hindu looking, with a long nose and dark features, and an unmistakable accent.
- Where are you from?, he inquired of me.
- I am Russian. I've lived in America for a long time, I explained.
- A! I am the Russian also, the Hindu gentleman declared.
- You are also Russian? You don't look Russian. Where were your parents from?
- We are all from India, of course, but we are all the Russians. Tell me, friend, what makes you the Russian?
I explained that my both parents were Russian, that I was born in St. Petersburg, etc. That did not satisfy him.
- But what makes you the Russian now? In your heart?
I went on to explain my being baptized Orthodox, and something about the Russian language.
- I still don't understand. We are the Russians and we know why we are the Russians. Our entire village is the Russian. We were the Russian for centuries. We were the Russians before the Hindus were Hindu. How come you are the Russian?
At this point the conversation entered a twilight zone. I imagined a village of Russian hinduized peasants wearing shoulder-collared shirts and birch bark shoes, all speaking in the broken English of his and getting college degrees in America. He probed something in my soul that I imagined had to do with Dostoyevsky. Finally, Gupta gently suggested that we perhaps should go back to work.
In the car Gupta had a pregnant silence, and then he asked:
- You still don't realize what went on?
- No, I said. Can we stop for a beer?
- He is Zoroastrian. He heard you say you were Zoroastrian. He was very surprised. There are not that many Zoroastrians even in India.
- Why did he not realize what I am from all the references to St. Petersburg and Orthodoxy, and Russian language?
- [timid smile].
LOL. You’d sure make a great Zorouassian. ;o)
They would still have the Holy Books which for told of the Messiah's birth and were looking for him while the Jewish priests in Judea paid no attention to it.
According to Dwayne Edward Spencer, the Magoi were “powerful ones” while the Sophi were “wise men” of Persia where most of the dispersed Jews still lived.
Why would Pagans be interested in anything happening in Judea at that time?
>> Why would Pagans be interested in anything happening in Judea at that time? <<
In the bible, they voice their motives quite plainly: they expect him to become a great king. Since Caesar was king, he would seemingly have to be an amazing political force to topple Rome. The magi wanted in on his good side.
Ya cant make them out to be Jews; they were plainly astrologers, for even if “magi” can’t be certainly translated to “astrologers,” they speak of reading the stars. Jews would not study the stars.
...which is not to say they weren’t heavily influenced by Jews...
I've also heard speculation that a new star pointing to the location of the baby messiah may have been prophecied by Daniel, and his writings may have still existed in Babylon at that time, but have since been lost or destroyed.
Makes sense to me.
Thank you for the map and details about the magi. Would that for just an hour or a day, we could step back in time to witness some historical event. There are some events I would definitely not want to experience ;-)
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