Reliquary of the Three Kings, Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Cologne, Germany.

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When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”   Matthew 2:1-2.

Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.

Well, let’s clear a little of the deck first. An epiphany in Scripture is a revelation or a manifestation of divinity. When Jesus was “transfigured” and appeared speaking with Moses and Elijah, that was an epiphany. The guiding star over Bethlehem and the magi following it, and searching for a “newborn king”, not to mention the virgin birth, was an epiphany. Then come the “magi”, a word which comes from the Greek word μάγοι (magoi) which has several meanings, but first, this is not an original Greek word, but a word taken from Old Persian maguŝ, itself coming from an ancient language called Avestan, where magâunô is an ancient Persian religious caste system into which the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra in the original) was born. Zoroastrianism is a religion, still with us, which believes in one God, Ahura Mazda. Now in Europe there was little understanding of this religion 2000 years ago, and all sorts of powers were ascribed to it. One was an unrivaled understanding of astrology, which was very important in the ancient world. Magi were also believed to be masters of the occult, and our word magic comes directly from that understanding. They were also believed to be masters of sorcery. To sum up, they were considered to be profoundly clever in ways the Europeans thought extraordinary, and consequently the east was thought to be the source of great wisdom. This, however, is but one of several different theories concerning these visitors. There is no mention in the gospel of how many magi there were. Because of the number and quality of their three gifts, the tradition developed in the early church that there were three magi and that they were wealthy, possibly even kings themselves…. Hence the spectacular reliquary of the three kings in Cologne Cathedral as shown above, whose contents apparently date right back to the 4th century. They also figure in the coat of arms of the city (crowns = kingly power; ermine = wealth), where no doubt today is a major feast:


City of Cologne Coat of Arms.

The magi were clearly not Jewish, and were, therefore, Gentile. And so, at the very beginning of the Savior’s life, there was a Gentile recognition and acceptance of his status: they were the first to recognize him as king, priest and sacrifice. And this was way before any general Jewish acceptance of him had happened, except for Simeon and Anna at his Presentation in the Temple, and of course the shepherds in the fields abiding. And there is a contemporary note about the star which led them to Bethlehem. On December 21, 2020, there was a “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare occurrence, making for what looked like a bright star to the naked eye. Such an event last took place in 1226! It is possible that such an event also took place in about 7BC, close to the real year Jesus was born. Also, January 6th, the traditional date of the Epiphany, was taken as the original date for Christmas, and still is in many eastern Christian churches. December 25, in the latest thinking, was selected as it was exactly nine months after the Spring equinox, March 25 in the old Julian calendar (also celebrated as the Annunciation, or Jesus’ conception), which also marked the ancient belief in the birth of the earth and the creation of the world. It also happened to coincide and overtake pagan midwinter festivals. Also of interest was that the image of the helpless babe in a manger, now our most popular image of Christmas (rather than King, Priest and Sacrifice), began to take root only in the 5th century, along with a tradition that Jesus was born at midnight, December 24/25, Cristes Maessan, Christ’s Mass, from which we get our word Christmas.

The Three Kings (and their Star) c.520, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

And then there were the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which are not really what you would present to a newborn! Clearly they are symbolic of something. The general scholarly understanding of them is a threefold meaning, gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for sacrifice, as it is the oil used to prepare a body for burial. All three apply directly to the adult Jesus, his mission and his glorification. That would also tie in with the perception of these bearers of eastern wisdom and divination. In short, this gospel passage, written it is thought by Matthew for a Gentile Christian congregation, clearly states the absolute acceptance of non-Jewish believers in the Savior, even in his extreme youth, confirmed by their welcome by Mary and Joseph, and, it might be said, by the warning dream they were not to return to King Herod and tell him where the child was. Perhaps even  more intriguing is that the three 6th century mosaic characters in the picture above are seen as young, middling and old; the three kings’ reliquary in Cologne was opened in the 19th century, and three sets of male bones were found therein, one young, one middle-aged and one old…. It doesn’t prove anything, but it is fascinating, and these visitors will continue to do that forever!

So when the magi had departed, the meaning was that Jesus was the Son of God through his conception by God’s Holy Spirit, that Mary had accepted this as God’s will and thereby reversed the fall of mankind in the story of Adam and Eve (which reflects humanity’s sinfulness which brought ruin on ourselves, but that there was now hope), that the choirs of heaven had made this known to humble Jewish shepherds who were therefore the first to acknowledge him as the Messiah, and that Gentile people of great wisdom, apparently led by God, also recognized Jesus as King, Priest and Sacrificial Victim. It set the stage for the mission of Jesus with his message of universal forgiveness, eternal love of God and the absolute, golden rule, that we must love God, our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

André Pierre painting

The Three Kings, Pierre André 1981, Myriam Nader Art Gallery, New York City, NY, USA.                    

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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