This weekend we celebrated the Epiphany! But who were these mysterious Magi who came from the East? Here are some things you may not know about the Magi!
– Magi comes from the word “magus” in Greek, which in turn was borrowed from the Old Persian “Magus”. The Magus referred to a priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion in ancient Persia. Zoroastrians were unique in the ancient world in that they were monotheists, which was quite a radical idea – very different from the Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, and Egyptians that surrounded them, who worshipped multiple gods!
Zoroastrians also had a concept of the Messiah, of heaven and hell, and many other similarities to Christianity. These Zoroastrian priests were close to encountering the True Faith because of their own pagan beliefs – God had been preparing them for the Truth through their own religion, so it’s no wonder that God chose them to come and encounter the Messiah in Bethlehem!
– Magi is also where we get our English word “magic”, since these priests were skilled in astrology.
– These magi were not “kings” – there is no Scriptural evidence for this!
– We do not know how many magi visited the Lord! Christian culture has always posited three solely because they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
– The traditional names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They come from a sixth-century tradition originating from Alexandria, Egypt. In other branches of the Catholic Church (for example, Syrian or Ethiopian) they have other names.
– A very ancient tradition (dating to the 300s) posits that the three wise men were martyred for their newfound faith in Christ. Their relics were held in Milan for several centuries before being moved to the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where they reside to this day.
– The three gifts were of great value in the ancient world, and would be commonly given to a king. Gold was the most valuable metal. Frankincense is an aromatic incense made from the dried sap of the Boswellia tree, which is found in Africa, the Arabic peninsula, and India/southern Asia. It would be burned for its sweet-smelling smoke. Myrrh is a similar resin made from the Commiphora tree, native to north-eastern Africa and the Arabic peninsula. It has antiseptic properties and was often used in ancient medicine as a mouthwash or made into a tincture to heal wounds. It also has mild painkilling properties.
– The three gifts were also highly symbolic in Christ’s life. We speak of Jesus as the Christ which is actually a title (not His last name!), as Christ means “Anointed One”. In the Old Testament, three groups of people were anointed with oil for their special role: priests, prophets, and kings. To call Jesus “the Christ” means that Jesus fulfills all three roles perfectly – He is the perfect High Priest who offers Himself in sacrifice, He is the fulfillment of all Prophets who speak on behalf of God and call Israel back to faithfulness, and He is the True King of Israel. These three gifts correspond with each of the three roles: gold was fitting tribute for the King of Kings; frankincense would be offered by the High Priest in worship; and myrrh, the bitter ointment, would richly symbolize the bitter death that Christ would suffer, as all of the prophets before Him did.
– “Epiphany” means to have a revelation. This is a hugely significant day, theologically, because this is the first time that a non-Jew recognizes the Messiah. It shows that Jesus came to bring salvation to the entire world, not just to His people.
– The three Wise Men did not visit Jesus in the manger. Luke’s Gospel is clear that they visited Jesus and Mary in a house – because this did NOT happen on the day of Christmas but probably several days or weeks later. More than likely, the Holy Family would have had time to find adequate lodging by then!
– Throughout the world, the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated with many unique traditions! Hispanic countries often bake a “King Cake” (similar to the one made for Mardi Gras) which feature a miniature Baby Jesus baked into it – if you get the little plastic Jesus, you are supposed to win a prize!
Others ask the Wise Men to bless their house by writing “2020 C+M+B” in chalk above their doorframe (for the year and the first letters of the names of the Wise Men – although it can also refer to Christus mansionem benedicat – “Christ bless this home”). Finally, others light multiple candles on this day, in remembrance of Christ being the light of the nations.