‘They rejoiced with exceedingly great joy’
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels, #7
The Magi, or Wise Men, have always been a blessed part of the Christmas season, as well as enjoying a prominent role in Western religious art. Did Matthew perhaps have an inkling of the tradition that he was starting when he portrayed these figures as the first to respond to the prophecy indicated by the star rising in the east? Regardless, it is well worth tracing the tradition of the Church by which the Magi would be ‘fleshed out’ as living characters, similar to the way Matthew himself revealed them from the shadows of the Old Testament.
The Gospel account makes the Wise Men the leading actors in the drama in Bethlehem. Having learned from the scriptural interpreters in Jerusalem that Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of the ‘King of the Jews,’ the Magi followed the star to find the Holy Family.
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
How many Wise Men were there? Matthew doesn’t say, but tradition tells us three, as they presented three gifts to the Christ child. The Magi’s wisdom was based on their acute reading of the heavens, an art cultivated in Babylon. Is this the part of the ‘east’ from which they came? Perhaps, or maybe from Persia, or Arabia.
As the tradition developed, the Magi were named as Kings: Melchior of Persia, Gaspar of India, and Balthasar of Arabia. In this way, they came to symbolize the three races of humanity that survived as offspring of Noah. The spiritual meaning of the gifts offered became clearer as well. As kings, the Wise Men paid homage to their true King with the regal gift of gold. To signal the Child’s destiny, they offered the frankincense used in the sanctuary in worship.
It is nice to think that Matthew himself recognized all this, at least in shadow, and especially the gift of myrrh. This fragrant ointment had two essential purposes. First, it was used at the ceremony by which kings were anointed for their coming rule. But the myrrh also foreshadowed the visit to the tomb by the Myrrh Bearing Women. Jesus must die before he can rule.
A review of this wonderful tradition of Christmas piety is offered here in the hope that it will enrich believers in the upcoming Nativity season and for years to come. The response of the Magi to these divine events is a guide and encouragement to our own spiritual life.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy (Matthew 2:10)