On 28 December in the Maronite Church we celebrate the feast of the Adoration of the Magi. In the Latin Catholic Churches this feast is celebrated at the Epiphany.
Modern images of the nativity and Christmas carols often depict the Magi as three wise men or three kings. But let us look at the history and significance of the Magi.
The Magi in the Gospel and other Texts
We learn about the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12. The word Magi is the Greek and can mean ‘astrologer’ or “wise”. Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born, the Magi came from the East to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
We are the told that when King Herod heard this he was frightened because it had been foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (v 8-12)
Matthew’s Gospel is in contrast to Luke’s Gospel and does not mention Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered, the crowded inn, a manger or shepherds. Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the journey of these eastern Magi who saw an unusual star rising and interpreted it as a sign that they should investigate.
The Protevangelium of James (an early Syriac writing) expands slightly on Matthew by describing the place where Jesus was born as a cave, rather than a house. This tradition is reflected in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem which has a small cave beneath it and where tradition locates Jesus’ birth.
Details such as the magi’s names, their number (three), their physical descriptions or the date of the magi’s arrival do not appear in the Bible. These traditions have been added to the oral tradition over the centuries.
In the West, by the fourth century, the Magi’s arrival was celebrated as the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. Today, in some parts of the Christian world, January 6, rather than December 25, is a time for exchanging presents, in commemoration of the gifts of the Magi.
The names and nationalities of the Magi have also varied throughout the world. For example, the Armenian Infancy Gospel refer to them as king’s. Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia.
It appears the tradition of three Magi have come from the account that three gifts were presented to Jesus. However, it has not always been assumed that there were three Magi. In one of the icons in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla it shows four magi and in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, two Magi are depicted.
Thanks to some recent work from Bent Landau we learn more about the magi in the Syriac tradition. He has recently translated an eighth-century Syriac manuscript which had been held in the Vatican Library called Revelation of the Magi. It is written in first person and purports to have been written by the Magi themselves.
It is believed that the earliest versions of the text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was composed. The Magi are a group of at least twelve and were monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. The magi are defined as those who “pray in silence”. They are described as:
…descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form.”.
When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east.
It’s a fascinating story, but does it actually bring us any closer to understanding who the actual magi of the Christmas story might have been? Unfortunately, the answer is no, says Landau, although it may provide insight into the beliefs of an otherwise unknown Christian sect of the second century that identified with the mysterious magi.
“Sadly, I don’t think this is actually written by the historical wise men,” said Landau in an interview with National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm. “In terms of who wrote it, we have no idea. [But] the description of the magi and [their religious practices] is so remarkably detailed and I’ve often wondered whether it’s reflecting some actual community out there that practiced and kind of envisioned themselves in the role of the magi.”
Why Did the Magi bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?
Over the centuries biblical scholars and theologians have offered different opinions on the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh presented by the magi to Jesus. These items were valuable to honour a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold was a precious metal, frankincense a perfume or incense, and myrrh an anointing oil. The same three items were among the gifts that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
Some scholars think that these three were chosen for their spiritual symbolism about Jesus. Gold representing Christ’s kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. That interpretation has been made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”
St Ephrem and the Magi
The Magi are referred to continuously by St Ephrem and his hymns contain enough material on the Magi to be the subject of multiple papers. So we will just focus on a few of the references in the Hymns on the Nativity.
“The morning star shed its rays
among the dark ones and led them
like blind men. They came and received
a great light. They gave offerings
and received life and worshipped and returned.”
St Ephrem places this hymn in the mouth of Mary and at the moment of the offerings of the Magi:
“Son of the Rich One, Who despised the womb
of rich women, what drew You
toward the poor? For Joseph is needy,
and I am impoverished. Your merchants
brought gold to a house of the poor.”
She saw the Magi; her songs increased
at their offerings: Behold Your worshippers
surround me, and their offerings: “Behold Your worshippers
surround me, and their offerings
encircle me. Blessed be the Babe
Who made His mother the lyre of His melodies.
This hymn is almost entirely focused on the Magi. The early Church Father’s read the Magi’s story in light of the prophecies of Balaam. Balaam was an oracle-reader who saw a rising star coming out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17), and which that indicated the rise of a great ruler of Israel. The Magi travelled to Judea to find this ruler based on their reading of Balaam’s prophecy. In St Ephrem’s hymn Balaam becomes the model for the Magi who are also oracle readers.
“The prophets announced His birth but did not specify His time.
He sent the Magi and they came and declared His time.
But the Magi who made known his time did not specify where the
The glorious star of light ran and showed where the Infant was.
This glorious succession! Blessed is He who by all of them was
What can we learn from this Feast?
The feast links to the Mystery of the Incarnation. The Magi were the first to honour the feast and like them, we are being called to witness this great event, the dwelling of Christ among us. Also like the Magi we are called to worship Christ. We can remember the Magi each time we go to Mass, when as a congregation we offer up our gifts of water, bread and wine so that they may be transformed by the living God who gives us his body to eat and blood to drink.
Blessed feast of the Adoration of the Magi to all.