On 6 January we celebrate Epiphany – the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus.
Epiphany? It means a sudden realisation; a leap of understanding; a manifestation of a divine being.
But who were these wise men?
No one knows for sure. Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, and that was the name of an ancient caste of a priestly kind from Persia. It wasn’t until the third century that they were called kings – by a church father, Tertullian. Another church father, Origin, assumed there were three – to correspond with the gifts given. Later Christian interpretation came to understand gold as a symbol of wisdom and wealth, incense as a symbol of worship and sacrifice, and myrrh as a symbol of healing – and even embalming. Certainly Jesus challenged and set aright the way in which the world handled all three of these things. Since the eighth century, the magi have had the names Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior.
Where did the Wise Men come from?
Magi from the East – it isn’t a lot to go on. As suggested earlier the Magi had originally been a religious caste among the Persians. Their devotion to astrology, divination and the interpretation of dreams led to an extension in the meaning of the word, and by the first century the Magi in Matthew’s gospel could have been astrologers from outside of Persia. Some scholars believe they might have come from what was then Arabia Felix, or as we would say today, southern Arabia.
Certainly in the first century astrology was practised there, and it was the region where the Queen of Sheba had lived. She of course had visited Solomon and would have heard the prophecies about how one day a Messiah would be born to the Israelites and become their king.
Matthew’s gospel (chapter 2) is clear that the Magi asked Herod: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his
star in the east and have come to worship him.’ So it is possible that in southern Arabia the Queen of Sheba’s story of how a Messiah would one day be sent to the Israelites had survived. Certainly there are a number of other early legends that connect southern Arabia with Solomon’s Israel.
To many people this makes sense: that the ancient stories of a Messiah, linked to later astrological study, prompted these alert and god-fearing men to the realisation that something very stupendous was happening in Israel. They realised that after all these centuries, the King of the Jews, the Messiah, was about to be born.
One more interesting thing that gives weight to the theory that the magi came from southern Arabia is this: if you study any map of Palestine as it was during biblical times, you will find that the old Arabian caravan routes all entered Palestine ‘from the East’.
What about the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?
The story of the coming of the Magi grew in the telling. By the 6th century they had acquired names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. By medieval times they were considered to be kings. Whoever they were, we do know from Matthew that they brought three gifts to Jesus.
What about their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? While we cannot know for sure what was in the minds of first century Magi, one Victorian scholar has offered a possible explanation as to the significance of their gifts. He was the Rev John Henry Hopkins, an American Episcopalian minister, who in 1857 wrote his much-loved Christmas carol: ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’.
Gold, said John Henry Hopkins, was a gift that would have been given to a king. Frankincense had traditionally been brought by
priests as their worshipped God in the Temple. Myrrh was a spice that the ancients used in preparing bodies for burial.
If that is true, then you could say that the Wise Men, in choosing their gifts for this infant, honoured Jesus with gold because he was King of the Jews, with frankincense because he was to be worshipped as divine; and with myrrh, because he would also become a sacrifice and die for his people.
The Wise Men were the very first gentiles ever to worship Jesus. What faith they had! They travelled for months over difficult terrain, they never saw any evidence of Jesus’ kingship, his divinity or his sacrificial death. They worshipped him through faith in God’s promises about him. Isaiah foresaw this response to Jesus: ‘Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ The Magi’s eyes of faith saw clearly and far into the future.
Compare that with the High Priest and religious leaders whom the Wise Men saw in Jerusalem when they first arrived. These head priests knew all about the prophecies of their own coming Messiah, but NOT ONE Jewish religious leader travelled to look for him in Bethlehem. And it is only six miles down the road!