This weekend we celebrate the Epiphany, the gathering of the magi in Bethlehem to honor the newborn Jesus as the king of the Jews and Savior of the nations. While the Gospels do not name them, Christian tradition says that their names were Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. As magi “from the East,” they would have been religious figures, with scholarly and likely political authority, probably from Persia, eastern Syria, Arabia, or some combination thereof. They were not members of the Chosen People. And it appears that they had only a vague knowledge of Judaism, for they had to ask where the Messiah would be born. At that time, in the Roman and Persian Empires, there was an increasing belief that the Jews had a special revelation and that a glorious ruler would arise from their midst. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in the first century A.D. that in the prior era, “people were generally persuaded in the faith of the ancient prophesies that the East was to prevail, and that from Judea was to come the Master and the Ruler of the world.” Another Roman historian Suetonius confirmed that, “it was an old and constant belief throughout the East that, by indubitably certain prophesies, the Jews were to attain the highest powers.”
And so God revealed to these magi that, when they saw a new light in the heavens, this great and saving king was about to be born. Some propose that this light was a long-tailed comet, as Chinese records indicate was in the sky in 5 B.C. Others propose that it was a supernatural light, perhaps only seen by the magi. In any case, the magi trusted God and set out on their glorious pilgrimage, which probably lasted between 3 and 12 months, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the latter being used for anointing people, especially at burials. Among other things, the gold was for the universal King, the incense for the great high priest, and the myrrh for Jesus as our sacrificial victim. With these gifts, the magi launched the fulfillment of the prophecies that kings of distant lands would come to the new Israel, bringing in the wealth of the nations. See Ps. 47:10, 72:10, Is. 49:7, 60:3-11. And they were the first promise of the gathering of all nations, first in the Church Jesus established on earth, and finally in the glorious, heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time. See Acts 2:1-12; Rev. 22:24-26.