December 30, 2011

What you may not know about the Magi

By Joe Tremblay *

The consensus of early Christian tradition has it that the Magi were three in number (although the Gospel of Matthew does not record the number). St. Bede, an early Church Father from England (673 A.D. -735 A.D.), assigned them the names of Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar. Each of these men were from different regions and deemed to be kings, astronomers and philosophers. One was from Persia (i.e. modern day Iran, Pakistan, India), the other from Arabia (i.e. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) and the third was from Ethiopia (i.e. Yemen, Ethiopia). People from these regions, especially Arabia and Persia, had a fascination with the stars and luminaries of the night sky. Rabanus, a Church Father and Benedictine Abbot from the 9th century, said that the Magi were often confused with magicians, astrologers or wizards. He said the Magi, who ventured in search for the Messiah, “were men who inquired into the nature of things philosophically, but common speech used ‘Magi’ for wizards. In their own country, however, they were held in other repute, being the philosophers of the Chaldeans [historic Babylon/modern day Iraq] whose lore kings and princes of that nation were taught, by which themselves knew the birth of the Lord.”

According to St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), bishop of Constantinople (in modern day Turkey), “This was manifestly not one of the common stars of Heaven. First, because none of the stars moves in this way, from east to south, and such is the situation of Palestine [Land of Israel] with respect to Persia. Secondly, from the time of its appearance, not in the night only, but it appeared during the day.” His words are reminiscent of the Christmas song, “We Three Kings of the Orient,” which captures the luminous character of this star.

“O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light!”

We have another source very close to the time of the rising star. St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.), an acquaintance of St. John the Apostle and the Blessed Virgin Mary, also a successor of St. Peter as bishop of Antioch (when St. Peter established a diocese in Rome, St. Ignatius took over in Antioch), wrote many letters to different churches. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he made reference to the star that led the Magi to Judea. St. Ignatius, a personal acquaintance of the Mother of God and the Apostles, also said that this was no ordinary star! He wrote, “The star shone so as to surpass in brightness all that were before it. For its light was indescribable; and struck with amazement all who beheld it. For all the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were a kind of chorus of audience for that star, for it surpassed them all in splendor.”

The star that attracted the Magi was a harbinger of God’s greatest blessing: The coming of his only begotten Son. During Jesus’ public ministry, he would tell his disciples, “Be ready! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” The Magi were first disciples from other nations. They were ready! They were wise! And what is more, they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to visit the new born Messiah, Immanuel.

But whatever happens to the Magi after their visit to Bethlehem? The New Testament doesn’t say. But there are plenty of thought-provoking traditions. For instance, “St. John Chrysostom [bishop of Constantinople 400 A.D.] asserts that after the resurrection of Christ, St. Thomas the Apostle came to the country of these Magi, and baptized them, and associated them with him in preaching the Gospel.” Independent of St. John’s report, there is a credible tradition that St. Thomas the Apostle traveled as far as India to preach the Gospel. Eventually he was martyred in that region.

Evidently these three historical men were well-known enough to have their bodily remains, that is, their relics, found 300 years after their death by the Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena. Around the year 1200, it was said, “The holy Helena mother of the emperor Constantine…accumulated the bodies of the Three Magi together, who were buried in different places, and Helena brought the bodies towards Constantinople.” (Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris) The relics of the Magi, as stated, were deposited in Constantinople, where St. John Chrysostom was bishop. Then, they made their way to Milan, Italy. Some years later they were then taken to Germany. And today they rest under the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, Germany.

During his 2005 World Youth Day visit to Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed both the historical and spiritual importance of the Magi: “While the Magi acknowledged and worshiped the baby that Mary cradled in her arms as the One awaited by the nations and foretold by prophets, today we can also worship Him in the Eucharist, and acknowledge Him as our Creator, our only Lord and Savior…'We have come to worship him' It is a theme that enables young people from every continent to follow in spirit the path taken by the Magi whose relics, according to a pious tradition, are venerated in this very city, and to meet, as they did, the Messiah of all nations.”

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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