Catholic Teaching on the Magi

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The Visit of the Magi

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

~ Matthew 2:1-12

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The meaning of the word “Magi”

In Greek, the original language of the Gospel, the word magos (magoi, plural) has four meanings:

  1. a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times;
  2. one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination and spiritual mediation;
  3. a magician;
  4. a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before-mentioned practices. Example in Acts, a magus named Bar-Jesus (13:10)

From these possible definitions and the description provided in the gospel, the Magi were probably Persian priest-astrologers who could interpret the stars, particularly the significance of the star that proclaimed the birth of the Messiah. (Even the ancient historian Herodotus (d. 5th century B.C.) would attest to the astrological prowess of the priestly class of Persia.)

Old Testament Prophecy with the Magi

The visit of the Magi fulfilled 3 prophecies of the Old Testament:

  • Balaam prophesied about the coming Messiah marked by a star:
    • “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel…” (Nm 24:17).
  • Psalm 72 speaks of how the Gentiles will come to worship the Messiah:
    • “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him” (Ps 72:10-11).
  • Isaiah also prophesied the gifts:
    • “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Is 60:6).

The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were “wise.” They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ” philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of the intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities… They represent the religions moving towards Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him (Benedict XVI, pg. 95)

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The Magi’s 3 Gifts

St. Matthew recorded that the Magi brought three gifts, each also having a prophetic meaning:

  • gold, the gift for a king;
  • frankincense, the gift for a priest;
  • and myrrh — a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die.

St. Irenaeus (d. 202) in his Adversus haereses offered the following interpretation for the gifts:

  • gold = King + virtue
  • frankincense = God + prayer
  • myrrh = Suffering Redeemer + suffering

At the very moment when the Magi adored Jesus, astrology came to an end, as the stars from then on traced the orbit determined by Christ ~ Gregory Nazianzen

The Number of the Magi

Traditionally, we think of the three Magi as the three kings. We usually have the three kings in our nativity sets. We even sing, “We three kings of orient are….”

Here the three gifts, Psalm 72 and the rising star in the East converge to render the Magi as three kings traveling from the East.

Actually, the earliest tradition is inconsistent as to the number of the Magi. The Eastern tradition favored twelve Magi. In the West, several of the early Church fathers — including Origen, St. Leo the Great and St. Maximus of Turin — accepted three Magi. Early Christian painting in Rome found at the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus depicts two magi and at the cemetery of St. Domitilla, four.

Since the seventh century in the Western Church, the Magi have been identified as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

 “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard… who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned… honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar … by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.”~ Excerpta et Collectanea by St. Bede (d. 735)

“Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in A.D. 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on Jan. 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6, aged 112; and St. Caspar on Jan. 11, aged 109.” ~ An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne. The Roman Martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi’s respective feast days.

3 Magi represent:

  • All 3 known continents: Africa, Asia, Europe
  • The 3 phases of human life: youth, maturity, old age.

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The Relics of the Magi

Emperor Zeno brought the relics of the Magi from Persia to Constantinople in 490. Relics (whether the same or others) appeared in Milan much later and were kept at the Basilica of St. Eustorgius. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who plundered Italy, took the relics to Cologne in 1162, where they remain secure to this day in a beautiful reliquary housed in the Cathedral.

Overall Message about the Magi

Even though some mystery remains to the identity of the Magi, the Church respects their act of worship: The Council of Trent, when underscoring the reverence that must be given to the Holy Eucharist, decreed, “The faithful of Christ venerate this most holy sacrament with the worship of latria which is due to the true God…. For in this sacrament we believe that the same God is present whom the eternal Father brought into the world, saying of Him, ‘Let all God’s angels worship Him.’ It is the same God whom the Magi fell down and worshiped, and finally, the same God whom the apostles adored in Galilee as Scripture says” (Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 5).

“The adoration of the Magi, unlike the story of the Annunciation to Mary, does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea” ~ Jean Danielou, The Infancy Narratives, pg. 95 –> Nevertheless, Danielou concludes that were are dealing with historical evens, whose theological significance was worked out by the Jewish Christian community and by Matthew.

As we celebrate Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, we too must be mindful of our duty to adore our Lord through prayer, worship and self-sacrificing good works. St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 389) preached, “Let us remain on in adoration; and to Him, who, in order to save us, humbled Himself to such a degree of poverty as to receive our body, let us offer not only incense, gold and myrrh…, but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes” (Oratio, 19).

The key point is this: the wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him (Benedict XVI, pg. 97).

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