Have you ever noticed that the Bible doesn’t specifically say how many wise men showed up in Bethlehem? We’re told that wise men from the East followed a star, interacted with Herod, and made their way to the manger (bearing gifts) but nowhere does it say how many men there actually were. So, how exactly did this idea of the “three magi” begin if Matthew 2 doesn’t give an explicit number? Is this just the byproduct of an overzealous songwriter thinking that “We Three Kings” sounded better than “A couple of Kings” or “About Four Kings”?
And what are the names of the Magi, anyway? They’re pretty important to the nativity story yet they (like so many in Scripture) go nameless in St. Matthew’s gospel.
With the Feast of Epiphany upon us, once again, our attention stays on Jesus, but shifts to that of how the Magi (or ‘wise men’) worshipped the Baby King of Kings. So, let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at the “other kings” (the “three” of them, to be exact).
First, Scripture (Matthew 2:11) does not say there were three wise men, it only list three gifts. As with a lot of things, the modern understanding of the three wise men comes from tradition (small “T”) over the centuries . . . since about the 8th century, that is.
The names of the magi are commonly held to be Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Though, no one knows for sure, it was St. Bede the Venerable (672-735) who filled in the details on the wise men stating, basically:
- Melchior – was an older man, with a long white beard and white hair, who brought gold to the King.
- Gaspar – was shown as younger, beardless and “ruddy” (reddish haired), who offered incense to Christ.
- Balthazar – was depicted as a middle-aged man of black complexion, with a heavy beard, who offered myrrh to Jesus.
More than just Christmas gifts
Regardless of whether or not that actually happened, the gifts they presented to the Christ Child are of significance for several reasons:
- Gold for the royalty of Jesus
- Frankincense for the divinity of Jesus
- Myrrh for the humanity (passion and death) of Jesus
What happened next?
Medieval legends state that their bones were put in the cathedral of Cologne, the “City of the Three Kings,” brought there in 1164.
Originally they were considered and depicted as astrologers but in about the Middle Ages, or so, the interpretation began to take on more of “kings.” Some traditions hold that St. Thomas the Apostle visited them later on in life, catechized and initiated them fully into the Christian faith and that they later were ordained priests and bishops.
Basically, they showed up, worshipped Jesus, and brought their gifts. Ask yourself if you do all three. If not . . . “Why not?” And if so, keep it up.
Finally, remember that the motivation and effort of your gift-giving is often far more meaningful than the gift, itself. The magi’s trust, their travel, effort and worship far outshined the gifts that they bore. Still today, far more meaningful than your mere physical presence in the Church is the motivation behind it and the worship you unleash when in the Lord’s presence.