Lecture No. 18 – January 2015


The Magi

Jim Russell, Lecturer
Jim Russell, Lecturer

[dropcaps] T [/dropcaps] oday, Jan. 6,  is the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany is defined as the manifestation of something, in this case, the presentation of our Lord to the world of the Gentiles through the story of the Magi.

Over the last few days, I took a quick inventory of the books I have on the “to be read list.” And then I took a look at the TV programs that we have set to record. I came to the conclusion that I like mysteries. Once you get past the “reality” shows and the sports, it appears that most of us enjoy mysteries. So tonight, I’m going to discuss at least three that we have experienced within the last few weeks.

Last month, I mentioned that the Christmas story only appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. I said that Luke was writing his gospel for converted Gentiles while Matthew was writing for converted Jews. Although both present essentially the same story, each is different.

Luke wrote about the events surrounding the miraculous birth of Jesus, beginning with the Annunciation. Matthew begins by establishing that Jesus is a direct descendant of Abraham, tracing his human lineage back over more than 40 generations. The gospel reading for the Sunday after Christmas from Luke speaks of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Under Mosaic Law, this was done on the eighth day after a male child was born. The birthday was counted as the first day. This portion of his gospel ends with the Holy Family returning home to Nazareth.

Matthew’s gospel has a different ending to the story, with the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt. The story, according to Matthew, includes the visit by the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents. Matthew’s gospel is the only known source for the story of the slaughter. The Magi saw the star of Bethlehem “at its rising.” They have studied the prophets and believe the star as foretelling the birth of a king. They set out to follow the star so they can pay homage to this new king and have followed it to Jerusalem. They bring with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although Matthew is vague about details, he is specific about the gifts.


Who were the Magi? Our story of the Three Kings has passed through several generations and several languages. First, it is highly doubtful that they were Kings. Kings traveled with hundreds if not thousands of retainers and soldiers. Herod would have seen them as an invasion force, not visitors. The earliest versions of the story use a word that could be translated as “Lord” or High Priest. Our traditions refer to them as “Kings,” and we have named them Casper from India, Melchior from Persia and Balthazar from Arabia.

The gospel does not name them, tell us how many there were or where they came from. Some translations of Matthew’s Gospel refer to them simply as “wise men from the East.” The term “Magi” was often used to identify members of the priestly caste for Zoroastrianism, an Eastern religion that spread through Mesopotamia, as far east as India and south through Arabia.

The priests were known to be knowledgeable, having studied astronomy and astrology as well as the writings of the prophets and other holy men. The story of the Magi also appears in Eastern Christian traditions. These traditions give them different names, different origins and even different numbers up to 12. Our own traditions sometimes change their country of origin to include the south coast of Turkey and somewhere in Africa. Starting in the 11th or 13th Century in paintings of the “Kings,” one of the Magi’s complexion began to darken either to more accurately reflect the darker skin of the eastern Caucasians or possibly in support of an African origin.

What about that “star rising in the East?” Matthew writes of the “star at its rising.” Stars don’t rise or set. True over thousands of years they do change positions. But during a human lifetime, their movement is so minor that we refer to them as fixed stars. The stars that we observe in tonight’s sky are pretty much in the same positions as those seen by Columbus, the apostles and even Abraham, although they would have seen many more.

Some have suggested that the “star” was really a comet. I have only two problems with that: comets don’t stop and, in those days, comets were usually viewed as foretelling some tragic event, such as the death of a king, not his birth.

Our word “planet” comes from a Greek word meaning “wandering star.” Planets can appear to rise, set and even stop briefly. David A. Weintraub writes that on April 17 of the year 6 B.C., the planet Jupiter appeared in the morning sky just before sunrise. Each day, it rose a little higher in the predawn sky, appearing to move westward. On Dec., 19 of that year, it appeared to stop its movement before beginning to appear to retreat slowly to the East. Matthew says Christ was born during the reign of Herod, who died in the year 4 B.C.

We are told that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Shepherds attended the child that first night as angels sang of his birth. The Magi enter the house, where the child lived and the only other person mentioned is his mother, Mary.

Matthew also tells us Herod ordered the deaths of all male children aged 2 or younger in Bethlehem. I would guess Christ was still a baby but no longer an infant, possibly even a toddler.

Although Matthew is vague about many of the details he is specific about the gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew uses the gifts as a sign of the three aspects of Christ.

Adoration-of-the-Magi-Tapestry-detailMelchior presents gold as a sign of Christ’s royalty. He names him “King forever.” Only the very wealthy could possess gold and, in many cultures, it was reserved strictly for the royal families.

Casper presents frankincense is a sign of Christ’s deity. Frankincense is a form of incense. It has been used for thousands of years to “sweeten” the air, purify the body and show reverence to the gods. I recall visiting a Chinese temple in Saigon. Huge rings of incense were suspended from the temple ceiling by the families of the deceased to honor them and to insure their spirit was accepted by the temple deity. I was told that the rings were to burn for “a hundred years.” My guide, obviously a non-believer, told me that they would only last for about 30 years and, by then, anyone who really cared would be long gone. We use incense today to “purify” the altar, the priest, the word of God and the congregation.

Balthazar presented myrrh. Matthew used it to demonstrate that Christ would be the sacrifice that would save our souls. It was an aromatic salve or oil to prepare the body for burial. It appears again when the woman anoints Jesus by pouring oil on his head before the Last Supper.

The fifth verse of our carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” sums up the gifts as representing Christ as “King and God and Sacrifice.”