What you may not know about the Magi:
-Part one of two posts (part II below):
“St. John Chrysostom [bishop of Constantinople] asserts that after the resurrection of Christ, St. Thomas the Apostle came to the country of these Magi, and baptized them, and associated them with him in preaching the Gospel.”
“The holy Helena mother of the emperor Constantine…accumulated the bodies of the Three Magi together, who were buried in different places, and Helena brought the bodies towards Constantinople.”
-Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris
*Historical note: Constantinople, a prominent city in the ancient Roman Empire, is now known as Instanbul, Turkey.
We, as twenty-first century Americans, are current-event driven. We place the high premium on that which is new instead of that which is old (both have their drawbacks to be sure). But the downside is that our memory is short. Yet, there is so much tradition and so many sources which illuminate the Gospel stories, particularly the birth of Christ. With the technology we have today, we would be remiss if we didn’t tap into them. In fact, if you are interested in learning about the richness and depth of the Catholic Faith then consider old Catholic books; published, let’s say, in the nineteenth century or earlier.
From the 1500’s to the 1900’s Catholic authors quite often had, at their fingertips, ancient documents and the writings of the Church Fathers. Moreover, they saw the need to integrate them, as much as possible, into their writings. This practice had a way of keeping us in touch with the past. After all, Christianity is not so much a philosophy as it is an historical religion. With a greater consciousness of tradition, Catholics were in a better position to benefit from God’s wisdom from each century.
One such Scripture commentator who lived during the 1500’s was a man by the name of Cornelius Lapide, a Catholic priest and scholar. He provided an extensive commentary on the New Testament, using fifteen hundred years of the Church’s teachings. It is from his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew regarding the story of the Magi which afforded me many of the sources below. Keep in mind that with the lack of information in Scripture regarding the "Three Wise Men,” we have to rely on traditions and a certain amount of speculation.
Mystique of the Magi:
One feature of the Christmas narrative is the Magi; those mysterious men from the East who suddenly appear in Jerusalem looking for the Christ-child. There has been a great deal of mystery surrounding these three Magi or Kings. What is particularly intriguing about them is how they knew about the imminent birth of Christ and how a bright star, giving so little in terms of information, could have directed their journey to the land of Judea at just the right time.
Their journey is reminiscent of Abraham’s journey from the land of Ur (i.e. modern day Iraq. In Abraham’s time this is where the pagans worshipped the stars. In fact, God used the stars to illustrate to Abraham just how many descendants he would have) to the Promised Land some two thousand years prior. He was called by God to go to a land he would “show him.” Leaving everything behind accept is tribe ( i.e. extended family), he ventured west, trusting that the Lord would see him through.
The Magi, taking what the early Christians believed to be about a thirteen day journey (the length of time between Christmas day and the Epiphany), not only relied on the Star of Bethlehem, but also on divine inspiration. As Pope St. Leo the Great said, “God, who manifested the sign of the star, gave understanding to those who beheld it: for He made it to be understood and inquired after, and, being sought after, He presented Himself to be found.” Indeed, their journey was based on a faith and trust similar to that of the patriarch Abraham.
The consensus of early Christian tradition has it that these Magi were three in number (although the Gospel of Matthew does not record the number). St. Bede, an early Church Father from England (673 A.D. -735 A.D.), assigned them the names of Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar. Each of these men were from different regions and deemed to be kings, astronomers and philosophers. One was from Persia (i.e. modern day Iran, Pakistan, India), the other from Arabia (i.e. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) and the third was from Ethiopia (i.e. Yemen, Ethiopia). People from these regions, especially Arabia and Persia, had a fascination with the stars and luminaries of the night sky. Rabanus, a Church Father and Benedictine Abbot from the 9th century, said that the Magi were often confused with magicians, astrologers or wizards. He said the Magi, who ventured in search for the Messiah, “were men who inquired into the nature of things philosophically, but common speech used ‘Magi’ for wizards. In their own country, however, they were held in other repute, being the philosophers of the Chaldeans [historic Babylon/modern day Iraq] whose lore kings and princes of that nation were taught, by which themselves knew the birth of the Lord.”
But how did these foreigners know about the significance of the star and the circumstances signaling the birth of a Jewish Messiah? Certainly a bright star wasn’t all they had to go on, was it?
Prophecy and the Gentile World:
It just so happened that the people of Persia, Arabia and even Ethiopia had crossed paths with the Hebrew people long before the birth of Christ. There are many reasons to believe that Scripture and Jewish traditions were well known in these places. It was likely a combination of an exceptional star, interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, interior inspiration and traditions from the time of Moses which all served to guide them to Bethlehem, where Mary and new born Christ were to be found.
Regarding tradition that may have come down to one or more of the Magi, Cornelius Lapide wrote, “The Magi knew that this star was the harbinger of Christ from Balaam.” During the time of Moses, in the book of Numbers (24:17), a gentile prophet by the name of Balaam was ordered by Balak, king of Moab (modern day Jordan, a neighboring country of Israel), to pronounce a curse on the Israelites. However, he could not; the Lord would not permit it. Instead, Balaam uttered a prophecy about the Messiah, who was to rise from the House of Jacob. He said, “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.” Admittedly, this was around the year 1400 B.C. (1400 years before Christ), a long time before the star would rise above Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, this prophetic utterance from the Arabian prophet, Balaam, could very well have been enshrined in the Arabian traditions. As St. Jerome said, “They [the Magi] knew that such a star would rise by the prophecy of Balaam, whose successors they were.” And another Church Father said, “These Chaldean [Arabian] Magi inspected the stars, not with malevolence [like King Herod] but with the true desire of knowledge; following, it may be supposed, the traditions of Balaam…”
Without the efficiency of the printed press and easy access to Scribes, the ancients relied very heavily on oral tradition; as did the Hebrew people before Moses penned the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah (or Pentateuch).
There are other reasons why the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament were probably known in Persia, Arabia and Ethiopia. So as to not burden the reader with too many details, I decided bullet point the possible historical and biblical reasons how the word got out about the expected Jewish Messiah.
• Moses had contracted a marriage with a Cushite woman from Ethiopia. Perhaps, this was after his first wife, Zipporah died (This was during their 40 year journey in the Arabian Desert). Hence, there were descendants of Moses who were both Hebrew and Ethiopian. (Numbers12:1)
• About 400 years after the time of Moses, around the year 950 B.C., the Queen of Sheba (Yemen/Ethiopian region) visits King Solomon: She said to the King of Israel, “The report I heard in my country about your deeds and your wisdom is true.".” (I Kings 10:1-13)
• A thousand years after the time of King Solomon, Ethiopian royalty still had retained a respect for Jewish Scriptures and traditions. In fact, just after our Lord’s ascension into heaven an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, was traveling back home from the Jewish Temple. The Ethiopian was reading the book of Isaiah out loud when St. Philip had introduced himself to him in order to explain the passage he was reading. Later, the eunuch was baptized. (Acts 8:26-28) Now, the book of Isaiah is known for its many prophecies regarding the birth, mission and death of the Messiah. Therefore, it is conceivable that just 33 years prior to providential meeting between the royal official from Ethiopia and St. Philip, a King or Magi from Ethiopia was aware that the birth of the Messiah was imminent. The Lord could very well have beckoned such a “wise man” through the luminous star shining in the night sky.
• About 200 years after King Solomon (800-700 B.C.), the Temple he built was destroyed and Jerusalem captured, and the Jews were deported to Babylon by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his army. At the time the Babylonian Empire was the world superpower at the time. The prophet Jeremiah and Ezekiel had witnessed these sad events. (Side note: Babylonia was traditionally said to be the location of the infamous Tower of Babel and in the general region of Arabia Today it is known as Baghdad, Iraq). The Jews settled there and developed their own traditions apart from the Temple rituals in their native land.
• The prophet Daniel was a servant in the royal household of King Nebuchadnezzar. He had predicted the following: “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and for your holy city: Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, Everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a most holy will be anointed.” Another expression of seventy weeks is “seventy weeks of years,” a formula of 70 x 7, equaling 490 years. Whether these numbers were supposed to be taken as symbolic or literal, the Jews of the first century were expecting the arrival of the Messiah in their day; about 500 years after the time of Daniel. Along with the Jews in Babylon, no doubt, their Arab friends had to be acquainted with the Messianic prophecies and the general period which they were expected to occur.
• Reminder: Ancient Persia is where modern day Iran is today.
• Persian religion of Zoroastrianism: Founded in the 6th century BC by Zoroaster. This was about the time period the prophet Daniel was in the neighboring region of Babylonia. Here are some beliefs that were remarkably similar to those of Judaism.
- One universal and transcendent God
- Good thoughts, words and deeds- conquer evil
- Free will
- Savior figure at the end times
- A kind of resurrection of the dead
• After the Babylonian Empire fell, the Persian Empire emerged as the world superpower. But its king, King Cyrus, saw himself as the one who fulfilled a prophecy from the book of Isaiah. “I say of Cyrus: My shepherd, who fulfills my every wish; He shall say of Jerusalem, ‘Let her be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’" (Isaiah: 44: 28 ) As such, he did exactly that. He not only permitted the Jews to return to their native land in order to rebuild a second Jewish Temple, but he helped subsidized it. Like Ethiopia, Persia was familiar with the book of Isaiah and most likely, many other Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
• When the Persian Muslims captured the Holy Land in 614 A.D., they “spared the Church of the Nativity, supposedly out of respect for a mosaic of the Magi shown wearing Persian attire.” (Smithsonian magazine, March 2009)
What you may not know about the Magi:
-The second of two posts
~“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.” (Isaiah 60:3)
~“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.” (Psalm 72:10)
~“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)
Setting Out To Judea:
“This was manifestly not one of the common stars of Heaven. First, because none of the stars moves in this way, from east to south, and such is the situation of Palestine [Land of Israel] with respect to Persia. Secondly, from the time of its appearance, not in the night only, but it appeared during the day.” These were the words of St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), bishop of Constantinople (i.e. modern day Turkey), in the fourth century. The Christmas song, We Three Kings of the Orient, captures the luminous character of this star.
“O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light!”
We have another source very close to the time of the rising star. St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.), an acquaintance of St. John the Apostle and the Blessed Virgin Mary, also a successor of St. Peter as bishop of Antioch (when St. Peter established a diocese in Rome, St. Ignatius took over in Antioch), wrote many letters to different churches. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he made reference to the star that led the Magi to Judea. According to St. Ignatius, a personal acquaintance of the Mother of God and the Apostles, this was no ordinary star! He wrote, “The star shone so as to surpass in brightness all that were before it. For its light was indescribable; and struck with amazement all who beheld it. For all the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were a kind of chorus of audience for that star, for it surpassed them all in splendor.”
Signs in the sky can be a harbinger of God’s blessing or an omen of his impending punishment. Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century, wrote a book called the War of the Jews. In book V, chapter 5, he wrote that a sign appeared in the night sky over Jerusalem in the year 66 A.D. A peculiar star had illuminated the night sky, that is, “a star that resembled a sword over the city.” This was to portend the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple by Titus and his Roman army just four years before it happened. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in the year 70 A.D. Also, towards the end of World War I in 1917, Our Lady of Fatima, appearing to the three Portugal children, warned that if people do not return to God a second world war would follow. She further warned that a sign in the sky would precede God’s punishment: “[I]f people do not stop offending God, another, even worse one will begin in the reign of Pius XI. When you shall see a night illuminated by an unknown light know that this is the great sign that God gives you that He is going to punish the world for its many crimes by means of war, hunger, and persecution of the Church and the Holy Father.”
As stated, God also signals his blessings in advance. The star that attracted the Magi was a harbinger of God’s greatest blessing: The coming of his only begotten Son. During Jesus’ public ministry, he would tell his disciples, “Be ready! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” But the Magi were first disciples from other nations. They were ready. They were wise. And what is more, they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to visit the new born Messiah, Immanuel. Some commentators went so far as to say that the coming of the three kings from the Orient was a preview of Pentecost. Foreigners from different nations gathered in Jerusalem for the unexpected coming of the Third Person of the Trinity, namely, the Holy Spirit.
Upon seeing the universal star, a luminous star at that, the Magi from Persia, Arabia and Ethiopia individually, without knowing what awaited them, embarked on a long journey thirteen day journey to Judea. To repeat, this journey would retrace, in part, the steps of the patriarch Abraham when God called him to the Promised Land.
What a magnanimous spirit these Magi had and what faith! Perhaps the words of our Lord, some thirty years in advance, would echo in their hearts: “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” God’s missions are sometimes guaranteed with a promise; but they are always tested by trials.
Moment of Crisis: His Star Disappears
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are recorded to have said that they saw, not just any star, but his star! Our Lords star! The star he created in order to give witness to his historic birth. Yet, if this star persisted to shine and to guide the Magi, why, then, did they have to consult King Herod’s royal court in Jerusalem? Why did they not go directly to Bethlehem? It is evident that the star disappeared for a time. There might have been a number of reasons for this. One such reason is given by St. John Chrysostom. He said, “The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way, the birth of Jews would be known to all.” Certainly this is one way to publicize the news that the birth of the Messiah is imminent. As such, the Jews would be full of expectation.
Cornelius Lapide brings up an important another important point. He said, “And God ordered this, both to try the constancy of the Magi, and to teach them and others that Christ’s kingdom consists in poverty, humility, and contempt of the world, not in earthly wealth, and pride, and pomps, and palaces.” Political greatness was to be found in Jerusalem at the time. Both Herod and later, Pilate, would hold their respective offices there. Yet, according to the first century Josephus, at no other time was vice so prevalent in Jerusalem. Perhaps this is why the star disappeared as the Magi neared Jerusalem. Again, St. John Chrysostom said that the star was “invisible and then again visible, when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself, and then appeared again when they left Herod.”
As for the Magi, and all missionaries of the Gospel, God withdraws his aids from time to time in order to strengthen faith. How many servants of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, were guaranteed success only to encounter circumstances and adversity that were manifestly at odds with the Lord’s guarantee?
The Simplicity of a King:
“But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:1) These are the words the Magi heard, maybe for the first time, in Jerusalem. They had not yet arrived. It was natural enough for them to go to Jerusalem, the City of David and the city where King Herod ruled. Although the Messiah was to die there some 33 years later, he was not to be born there. As such, they were instructed to go to the small town and seemingly insignificant town.
Pope St. Leo the Great said, “The Magi, judging as men, sought in the royal city for Him, whom they had been told was born a King. But he who took the form of a servant, and came not to judge but to be judged, chose Bethlehem for His birth, Jerusalem for his death.” Oh yes! The Lord’s ways are not our ways. We look for greatness in the entertainment and political arena. We think greatness is where all the action is; in Washington D.C., in L.A., in the Big Apple and at the office. Indeed, today’s heroes are celebrities, the wealthy and powerful men and women. But true heroism is not to be found there. In fact, true greatness and heroism is fostered in quiet and unknown places: In the daily thankless duties of parenting in the home or caring for the elderly in nursing homes or praying for the conversion of sinners in the convent. Moreover, success, at least in God’s eyes, is quite often to be found in setbacks and under the veneer of failure. When all seems lost or when we throw up our hands and ask, “What good can come from Nazareth?” is when Divine Providence works its marvels. Out of nothing comes something special; from human folly comes divine wisdom; and from a small town would come a great King!
If we were to use human and worldly as our standard gauge success , St. Joseph would have to be considered a failure on Christmas night. That’s right! He could not even find room and board for his pregnant wife in his home town. Nevertheless, the Holy Couple accepted their homeless plight with peace of mind and trust in God. What seemed like such an undesirable situation at the time turned out to be a great blessing to the lowly of the world. The royalty of the newborn Messiah did not scare imperfect souls away. Rather, our Lord’s simplicity and poverty was an invitation to all; even the Jewish shepherds of the lower classes and foreign Kings from privileged backgrounds. In any case, the trust that Joseph and Mary put in God paid off.
Cornelius Lapide, the 15th century priest and scholar, said, “There was no room for Mary and Joseph, who were poor people, in the hostelry, until the thirteenth day after Christ’s birth.” This is when the Magi came with their gifts. It was the ancient custom of the Arabians and other Orientals, not to approach their kings and rulers except with a gift, as it were a tribute due to them. “Gold for a king, frankincense for God, myrrh for the dead.” (S. Ambrose) That is, gold for the King of Kings, frankincense for him as the divine High Priest, and myrrh for the sacrificial Victim, better known as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This gold not only had symbolic value, but it served a very practical purpose: The Holy Family could now afford a place to stay in. In addition, when they had to flee Herod’s wrath by traveling to Egypt, the gold would further serve a means of revenue.
The Magi saw the “child with Mary, his mother.” Curiously, St. Joseph was not mentioned during their visit. And the reason for this might be to accentuate the kingly character of Christ and the Queenly character of Mary. These two characteristics, no doubt, will be prominent themes at our Lord’s Second Coming.
In any case, the book of Wisdom, a book in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint and also well known in Egypt as early as 200 B.C., said “Yes, blessed is she who, childless and undefiled, knew not transgression of the marriage bed; she shall bear fruit at the visitation of souls.” (3:13) And we cannot forget the prophet Isaiah. His prophecies on the Messiah were known as far away as Ethiopia (the book dates back 700 years before the birth of Christ). He said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” In Genesis it was a husband (Adam) and his wife (Eve) who were the founders of the old, fallen race. On the flipside, the founders of the new and redeemed race are a Mother and Son team. In the Old Testament, it was King Solomon of Israel with his mother, Queen Bathsheba, who ruled over God’s people for a time. But in the New Testament, it is Christ the King and Mary, Queen of Heaven, who rule over God’s people eternally.
Between Two Kings:
And yet, our Lord’s kingdom will not be uncontested. The Magi, the three foreign kings from the Orient, found this out through a dream. They were not to return to Jerusalem in order to accommodate King Herod. As Pope Leo the Great taught, “Herod represents the Devil…For he is grieved by the calling of the Gentiles [i.e. Magi] and by the daily ruin of his power.” Many rulers, including Satan himself, would come, in the years to come, against his reign.
Hence, like all souls, these Magi stood in the middle, between a good king, namely, Jesus Christ and an evil king, Herod. Indeed, Herod represents not only the Prince of Darkness but every ruler who oppressed their subjects. As a historical note, dictators in the 20th century killed more people than did all of the wars during the same century.
Christ or Herod? The former represents goodness and the latter, evil. This is salvation history in a nutshell. And it would seem that this choice has been forced upon Americans in recent decades.
The Post-Ascension Era:
Whatever happens to the Magi after their visit to Bethlehem? The New Testament doesn’t say. But there are plenty of thought-provoking traditions. For instance, “St. John Chrysostom [bishop of Constantinople 400 A.D.] asserts that after the resurrection of Christ, St. Thomas the Apostle came to the country of these Magi, and baptized them, and associated them with him in preaching the Gospel.” Independent of St. John’s report, there is a credible tradition that St. Thomas the Apostle traveled as far as India to preach the Gospel. Eventually he was martyred in that region.
Evidently these three historical men were well-known enough to have their bodily remains, that is, their relics, found 300 years after their death by the Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena. Around the year 1200, it was said, “The holy Helena mother of the emperor Constantine…accumulated the bodies of the Three Magi together, who were buried in different places, and Helena brought the bodies towards Constantinople.” (Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris) The relics of the Magi, as stated, were deposited in Constantinople, where St. John Chrysostom was bishop. Then, they made their way to Milan, Italy. Some years later they were then taken to Germany. And today they rest under the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, Germany.
During his 2005 World Youth Day visit to Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed both the historical and spiritual importance of the Magi: “While the Magi acknowledged and worshipped the baby that Mary cradled in her arms as the One awaited by the nations and foretold by prophets, today we can also worship Him in the Eucharist, and acknowledge Him as our Creator, our only Lord and Savior…'We have come to worship him' It is a theme that enables young people from every continent to follow in spirit the path taken by the Magi whose relics, according to a pious tradition, are venerated in this very city, and to meet, as they did, the Messiah of all nations.”