Magi from the East, Catholic Culture.

….behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?      Matthew 2:1-2.

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First, let us take at that word “Magi”. It does not come from Latin or Greek, which makes the term unusual in Christian Scripture. It is thought to come from an ancient eastern religion called Zoroastrianism. This religion survives to this day, and what is remarkable about it is that it is monotheistic, predating Christianity. Zoroaster, the founder, lived in what is now Iran perhaps 700 years before Christ (there is a lot of discussion on this point). Magi were possibly priests of that religion. In any case, they were not kings! Note that today’s gospel does not tell us how many arrived at the stable. From the number of gifts and their quality, especially gold, popular tradition assumed they were kings, even naming them Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These Magi, however, from the only other society who worshipped one God, witnessed a revelation – or epiphany – of the One True God by means of a star guided by God’s hand. They represented the world’s nations. (Note that the shepherds, who also arrived at the stable, had witnessed a chorus of angels as their epiphany. They also represented the lowest end of the social scale compared to the Magi who were probably at the highest end). So epiphany means an intervention and revelation of the divine in human society. Next week we will celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where a voice came from heaven, and the Holy Spirit “as of a dove” descended on him. That event, therefore, was also an epiphany, a representation of the presence of God. The same goes for the event known as the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared with two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, plus also the voice of God was heard. But today’s event of the three wise men arriving from the east is probably the most familiar of these epiphanies.

The three gifts have their own significance also. Gold, frankincense and myrrh each has a specific implication. Gold clearly represents wealth and power; this is Jesus seen as an all-powerful King. The Sunday before the beginning of Advent, you will recall, was celebrated as the feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Incense for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian instantly recalls celebrations in church; there is even a psalm which says that our prayers to God should “rise like incense” (Psalm 141). So this gift identifies Jesus as High Priest. (Frankincense specifically identifies a type of incense made from the sap of a certain tree). Then there’s myrrh, the most mysterious of the gifts. Like frankincense, it comes from the sap of a certain tree, and it is still used today in cosmetics and health care. That seems unlikely to apply to today’s feast. Very likely it was in reference to embalming a dead body, for which it was once used. If so, this can be taken as a reference to Jesus’ death. So the gifts represent Jesus as King, Priest and Victim, which encapsulate his life, his vocation, on earth. 

For many years, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated on January 6, and is sometimes called “Little Christmas”. If so, it is on the 12th day after Christmas (the source of that famous song) and is often the day Christmas decorations are taken down; for many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters that day is celebrated as Jesus’ birthday, using the old Julian calendar instead of our Gregorian calendar. So this feast has many and varied dimensions and can be quite confusing. But at root it indicates the universal nature of Jesus’ vocation. The three Magi represent the nations of the world in their wisdom, power and faith. The birth of the Son of God was not a local Jewish event meant for one people. It was meant for everybody, everywhere. In this understanding, all of us, every race, nation, city, village, family and individual, are called by God to recognize Jesus as sent by God to each of us. Hence any prejudice, any racist thought or word is to be absolutely and totally rejected. Such thinking has no place in the Christian world. Contemporary examples of anti-semitism, white supremacy and so on are the opposite of what today’s feast represents. Today demonstrates the Christian acceptance of all people as children of God, all of us equal in God’s eyes, each individual beautiful in the sight of God who created us all. I believe that to be the precious message of today’s feast. And Amen to that!


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