The Twelfth Night used to signal the end of the Christmas Season and the beginning of the Mardi Gras celebrations. We celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany on the twelfth day after Christmas but now the Church has moved the Feast to the nearest Sunday.
The story of the Magi visiting the child Jesus is full of mystery and intrigue. Every time we hear it, we find new meaning.
In the time of Christ, people expected that signs in the heavens would accompany the birth of a king. The heavens would send their warnings or greetings.
How many Magi were mentioned in St. Matthew’s gospel? If you read the gospel carefully, Matthew mentions no numbers. In the early church their number varied from two to 12. By the 6th century the tradition was that three Magi journeyed to Bethlehem to greet the newborn King. The number three was probably associated with the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Magi were well-trained astrologists. The word “Magi” came to mean “one skilled in knowledge of the occult,” and from it we have our word “magician.” Believing that everyone has his or her particular star, the Magi studied the movements of the planets in detail.
During the Middle Ages they gave the “three Magi” special kingly titles, names, nationalities, and ages. Melchior was the eldest (60) and was King of Arabia (tan skinned). He brought the Christ Child gold. Next came 40-year-old Balthasar, King of Ethiopia (black skinned), who brought fragrant frank incense. The third Magi was 20-year-old Caspar, King of Tarsus, (white skinned) who presented myrrh.In 7 B.C., the planets Jupiter and Venus came together, and later Jupiter and Saturn. This occurrence was significant enough to make these astronomers believe that an important ruler was to appear in Palestine. They set out to find the king whose star they were following.
However, Palestine already had a king. King Herod was half Jewish and very suspicious. He was made king by playing up to the Roman authorities. He was so fearful and paranoid that he murdered his favorite wife, two of her sons, and even his own eldest son, because they might plot against him. The thought of a genuine Jewish king undermining his own claim to the throne aroused in Herod his well-known cruelty.
These men came with gifts. They asked where they could find the infant king so that they could offer worship. Then all hell broke out. Herod found out that Bethlehem was the birthplace of the Messiah. He directed the Magi accordingly and then planned to kill the child.
The gifts offered were extremely symbolic. Gold was for kingship; frank incense was used in temple worship by the priests; and myrrh was used to embalm the dead. The gifts foretold Jesus’ nature and his role – King, High Priest and Redeemer.
“Epiphany” is a Greek word that means “to manifest.” The Gentiles were granted this first epiphany. The Jews were destined to bring forth the Messiah, but Jesus would save everyone who sought him. We must not contain him in exclusive doctrines, nor see him as our exclusive property. As Christians we can share in his kingship and offer the gold of ourselves. When we ask him to be manifest in us, we share in his royal priesthood. When we give him all that hurts, we share in his redemptive suffering. Through us he is shown to the world.
The gospel says the Magi went home “a different way.” That could mean they themselves, as well as their route, were changed. How often we pray, “O God, guide my footsteps” then we never move our feet. Sincere faith means seeking the divine mystery in all aspects of life.
This is our story. This is our journey! Follow the star!