Who Were The Magi

By Christian Bergmann

We refer to them traditionally as the three wise men, or the three kings of the orient. The Scriptures actually use the word magoi to identify them: magi from the east. The presence of these figures in Matthew’s Gospel – with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Nativity account. The truth is that we know so little about them because Matthew tells us so little about them. For example: we typically depict three of them, but Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were. We typically think of them as riding camels, but again, that is not specified. Neither are their names, although we seem to think they were called Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar. And when it comes to the star, the reference is obscure: “‘We saw his star at its rising’”, they told Herod (Matthew 2:2). Not exactly the magical star that moves in the sky.

Our childhood pageantry also obscures the essential drama of the story. These magi become tied up in a politically motivated attempt to murder a young child. King Herod, upon meeting the magi, assures them that he wants to do Jesus homage, commanding them to “‘search diligently for the child’” (2:8). But, obviously, when the magi did not tell him where the child Jesus was being hidden, Herod orchestrated a massacre of all boys under two years old. It is the most singularly brutal event in the New Testament, apart from the Crucifixion.

The truth is that we may never know the full truth about who the magi were or where they came from or how many there were. But there are some important details of the story that can help us enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. These are some details that Pope Benedict XVI outlined in his 2011 homily on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Firstly, the narrative of the magi begins with their entry into Jerusalem. We might brush over this tiny detail, but in one sense – of course they went to Jerusalem. Of course that was the place they assumed would be the right place to go, especially since they were looking for a king. It was the cultural, religious and political centre of that world. It was the centre of power. If you’re looking for a king, that’s where you go. But, they are unexpectedly redirected to Bethlehem: a much poorer town. The contrast between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is stark, and it accentuates for us the mysterious nature of Christ’s kingship: that he doesn’t exercise it in the way the world does. He wasn’t born to a place of power, amidst privilege and wealth and honour and luxury. He was born on the outskirts. In poverty. In Bethlehem, a name which means ‘house of bread’. He came not to be fed, like the other kings of privilege, but to be food for his people. This is a reality that should strike home for us who love the Eucharist: this is how Jesus reigns, by feeding us, his people.

Finally, Pope Benedict asks a startling question: “Is there perhaps something of Herod also in us?” Herod saw Jesus as a threat; he was a threat to his world, his empire, his privilege. Do we treat God as a rival? Do we refuse to humble ourselves before him out of fear that he will put undue limits on our lives? Or, can we accept the truth, that it is only in Jesus that we find true freedom in life. The extent to which we treat Jesus like a rival is the extent to which we exercise our spiritual lives as if we were Herod. We need to be more like the magi and be willing to leave our places of comfort, following the call of our restless hearts to ultimately live our life in homage to the true king: Jesus of Nazareth.