Friday, 1 December 2017

Three wise men

The wise men are also known as the ‘the three kings’ and the ‘Magi’. They appear only in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew does not say much about them, so Christian tradition has filled the void left by silence.
         The magi were a group of foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity cele brations of Christmas and play an important part in the Christian tradition. We remember them particularly at Epiphany and the season named after it. The feast of Epiphany itself occurs on 6 January each year.
According to Matthew the Magi came ‘from the east’ to worship the ‘king of the Jews’. Although Matthew’s account does not mention the number of these Magi, the three gifts has led to the widespread
assumption that they comprised three men.
In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi number twelve. Their identification as kings comes from much later, and is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, ‘May all kings fall down before him’.
Traditional nativity scenes depict these three kings visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, at the same time as the shepherds and angels, but this idea is merely an artistic convention to allow the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience. Matthew’s account simply presents an event at an unspecified (but later) time after Jesus’ birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed Magi visits Jesus in a house rather than a stable, with only ‘his mother’ mentioned as present.
The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi but later traditions and legends give them names. In the Western Christian church they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as:
o Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), an Indian scholar.
o Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), a Babylon ian scholar.
o Melchior, a Persian scholar.

But it gets more complicated. By the later Middle Ages, Balthasar was said to be a king of Arabia, Melchior was a king of Persia, and Gaspar was a king from India.
Matthew explicitly identifies the Magi offering three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold recognising kingship in the recipient, itself implying that Jesus was (or would be) a king. Frankincense is an aromatic gum that is burnt during worship, so presenting Jesus with incense implies a sense of divinity: Jesus is God. And myrrh is a mixture of spices used to anoint the dead and thereby helps stop the decay of a corpse, so offering myrrh to Jesus is a prophecy of Jesus’ death and its importance for us.
Further traditions exist. One suggests the magi converted to Christianity and were later martyred for their new-found faith.
    Certainly, by the late third-century, their bodies were venerated at a shrine in Constantinople, reputedly brought there by Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. Their relics were moved to Milan in 344. When Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (Barbarossa) imposed his authority on Milan, he moved the relics again, this time to Cologne Cathedral, and built there the Shrine of the Three Kings, where they are venerated today.

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