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The Story of the Magi

By Ed Masters

A caravan of dromedaries treks across the burning desert in the Middle East. The scene was a familiar one since at least Abraham's time across the time-worn routes of trade and barter, exploration and war scouts. But one memorable journey made over two thousand years ago stands out: a group of men following an unusual star in the sky, announcing the birth of a mysterious King.

Who these men were has been debated in the twenty centuries since. Drawing on sources from the Bible, the writings of Saints, Church Fathers and even private revelation, here’s an overview of what’s been written by Christians about the men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Our Lord after His Nativity:

 

Their likenesses are a familiar sight every year, yet the primary sources on these individuals are scant; in fact, only the Gospel of Matthew mentions the Magi at all.

In Matthew Chapter 2 we read, “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. [2] Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. [3] And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. [7] Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; [8] And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. [9] Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. [10] And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.[11] And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [12] And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.” [13]

So, a cameo appearance in one of the Gospels is the first time we hear of the Magi, from the word “Magus” in Latin. St. Matthew doesn't say how many of them there were; Eastern traditions put their number at twelve and artistic renderings depicts anywhere from two to eight. And although he didn't write about the Wise Men, St. John the Evangelist knew the story and passed it down, according to St. Irenaus, his disciple.

 

Some five centuries before the Birth of Christ, the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned that the Magi were a priestly order of rulers whose influence held sway during the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian (Chaldean) and Persian Empires.

It was during the time of the Parthian Empire that the Wise Men familiar to us embarked on their famous sojourn. The historian Strabo tells us that these monarchs formed one of the ruling councils of the empire of the Parthians.

Their notable visit was prophesied in the Bible: “Kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; Kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore Him, all nations shall serve Him.” (Psalm 71:10-11) “[1]Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. [2] For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. [3] And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. [4] Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. [5] Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee. [6] The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.” (Isaias 60:1-6).

Many Jews lived in Babylon and within the Parthian Empire, as they had chosen to not return to Palestine during the time of King Cyrus of Persia. Some experts say that this is where non-Jews would have encountered the Old Testament, which foretold the coming of the Messiah.

 

A century after this earliest depiction known of the Magi was carved into the side of a Roman Christian sarcophagus, Pope St. Leo the Great wrote that the Magi through some extraordinary revelation knew that the Star they followed heralded the birth of a divine King. None of the Church Fathers say that they were kings, though Tertullian describes them as ‘well nigh’ kings.

As for their names, to the Syrians the Magi were Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph. The Armenians called them Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida. To the Ethiopians they were Hor, Karsudan and Basanater.

It was England’s St. Bede the Venerable who first gave their names as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These are the names given to the Magi most familiar in the Latin tradition. They were said to have come from any number of countries; Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Arabia and Ethiopia.

Though they were more than likely unaware of it, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh had symbolic meanings; gold was symbolic of the fact it was a gift to a King, frankincense was a symbol of Our Lord's divinity, and myrrh was symbolic of death — until the 15th century myrrh was used as an incense in funerals and cremations.

After they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod but to travel back home to their countries by a different route, what subsequently became of the Magi? Many stories were handed down through tradition and the writings of saints and historians as well as private revelation. They were said to have been baptized into the Faith by St. Thomas the Apostle in India after Our Lord's Ascension. Some have them dying of very old age while others say they suffered martyrdom.

 

Mystical Visions in Germany

In her visions, the early 19th century German mystic, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich gives their names as Theokeno, Mensor and Seir.

She explains that each of the Kings had in his train as companions four nobles of his own race which would help explain the Eastern tradition of twelve Kings. She also gives the origins of their names: “The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar were given to the kings, because they so well suited them, for Caspar means ‘He is won by love; Melchior, ‘He is so coaxing, so insinuating, he uses so much address, he approaches one so gently’; Balthasar, ‘With his whole will, he accomplishes the will of God.’

Sister Emmerich also stated that the Magi sang on their journey: “When again on their way, I heard them softly and sweetly singing together short strophes, such as: Over the mountains we shall go. And before the new King kneel!” Furthermore she testified that they were descended from the Old Testament Patriarch Job.

 

EMPEROR CONSTANTINE’S MOTHER: Three centuries after the Kings departed, St. Helena embarked on a quest to the Holy Land to identify the places described in the Bible. Though she is probably most famous for discovering the True Cross, she also found the remains of the Three Wise Men in Persia.

Some sources say their remains had been brought from Persia to Palestine at some unknown previous date and that St. Helena found then in the Holy Land. In his travels centuries later Marco Polo said he visited the site of their former resting place in Saveh, Persia just south of Tehran. Helena brought them to Constantinople where they remained until the 5th Century when they were transferred to Milan by that city's bishop, St. Eustorgius I.

More than 800 years later, in 1164 Milan was conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He took the relics of the Magi to Cologne, Germany and gave them to Archbishop Rainald von Dassel. They were brought to the Cologne Cathedral where a magnificent reliquary, the largest in the Western world, was constructed to house their relics. It draws the devout to this day.

 

Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh

What became of the threefold gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Three Kings? There are any number of legends and traditions and various chroniclers touch upon this. An enduring tradition is that Mary and Joseph donated the gold and frankincense to the Temple in Jerusalem and that the myrrh was saved and used for Jesus' burial 33 years later.

The Feast Day of the Magi is January 6 and it is on this day, not Christmas Day, in many countries where people exchange gifts. One tradition kept on that day is taking blessed chalk and writing the initials of the Magi connected with Crosses, over the inside of your front door along with writing the year on both sides of the initials and crosses (example: 20 C+M+B+ 17) It is also a tradition that those who receive a Christmas Card with the Three Wise Men keep the card up all year round for blessings.

La Marche des Rois Mages (March of the Kings):

Ce matin, j'ai rencontré le train
De trois grands rois qui allaient en voyage
Ce matin, j'ai rencontré le train
De trois grands rois dessus le grand chemin
Tout chargés d'or les suivaient d'abord
De grands guerriers et les gardes du trésor
Tout chargés d'or les suivaient d'abord
De grands guerriers avec leurs boucliers.

We Three Kings Of Orient Are

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 night,
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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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