What the Magi Can Teach Us Today

Adoration of the Magi by Rubens 1617-18

In a world riven by conflict, it’s easy to forget what we owe to these three wise men that later legend describes as kings. We easily slough off the acceptance of such stories as naïve. In doing so, I suspect we lose a sense of the wonder that must have been felt by these men who left their homes to follow a star in search of an adventure that is still unfolding.

The second chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the wise men had followed “his star” from “the east” in order to adore the newborn “king of the Jews.” Arousing the interest of King Herod, who called something of a symposium on the matter, they discovered from the chief priests that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in the otherwise obscure town of Bethlehem.

Matthew is the only evangelist that recounts their visit to the infant Jesus. To unbelievers, this sounds contradictory. Witnesses, however, as lawyers can attest, rarely have identical recollections. Fabrication often shows its stitching, a faux harmony at odds with the particularity of the real.

The word Magi derives from a Greek word for “sorcerer” that stems ultimately from the Persian language. Hence “the east” has been associated with Persia, around 1000 miles from Jerusalem. If they traveled 30 miles a day by camel or mule, that means about a month on the road. In all likelihood, it took longer, for there are over fifty mountains in Iran with elevations above 3000 feet, which would mean treacherous passes or long detours along more level routes. These guys were tough.

An edition of the works of St. Bede (d. 735) printed in 1563 gives us one of the first mentions of their names, and more detail, some of it conflicting with the Persian scenario: the oldest, Melchior, King of Arabia, bearing gold; Balthazar, King of Ethiopia, offering frankincense; and the youngest, Caspar, King of Tarsus, with his fragrant gift of myrrh. The names and the titles are not scriptural, though the gifts are in Matthew, and as countless exegetes have explained, represent, respectively, the infant Christ’s kingship, divinity, and impending sacrificial death.

Vanderbilt astronomer David A. Weintraub has theorized that this “star in the east” was the reappearance of one of the planets in our solar system that had been previously lost in the light of the sun, and which became briefly visible again at dawn. These “mathematically adept” wise men, suggests Weintraub, may also have known some of the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the coming of a savior, and used this astronomical occurrence as a signal for when to set out on their search.

Many commentators have seen these men as representing the universality of Christianity. These wanderers from strange lands evoke the gentile world brought into the promises of God made long ago to Abraham. Though modern scripture scholars may look skeptically at this passage, seeing it as a Christian version of Midrash—tale-telling fiction to elaborate an essential truth—surely we aren’t gainers when we dismiss these wise men into the irrelevancies of make-believe.

In Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), the now-retired pontiff reflects that this star, though a miracle, was seen precisely because it entered into that “language of creation” which offers us “an intuition of the Creator.” Hence, the Magi are not sorcerers, but more akin to philosophers, in the ancient sense of seekers of wisdom.

The light that guided them dethrones the deities for whom the stars are named, and its origin is the child who is the Word, the logos who fashions all things in the radiance of their inner being.

This star became the unifying center of that civilization from which the West has sprung, and from which we are now moving away in a willed cultural amnesia. We settle for easy answers, for process, for ideologies that banish even the idea that the world speaks to us in any language except what we program into it. For many of us, nature has become nothing more than an app. You have nine months to delete.

But convenience, when it becomes a philosophy, always disenchants, though the process may be slow enough for many to notice only when it’s too late to ask the big questions—the ones that trigger thought, reflection, spiritual discomfort, and hope beyond all reckoning.

Yet it is precisely the big questions that the wise men must have been seeking in their hearts in order to follow a sign into unknown lands at great personal risk. They were accustomed to wealth and power, and yet something stirring within made them turn to this star, to the higher things, for guidance. They remind us that chief among the riches of life is wisdom, a loving search for the truth. They teach us to be open to the self-disclosures of God by reading his works with reverence, by using our common home, as Pope Francis calls it, as a gift for which we will one day have to give an account.

So perhaps it’s not too late for us to share in that liberating sense that must have come to these three wisdom-seekers when they found that all of their knowledge of the world and the discoveries their culture had made (albeit small compared to today’s achievements) were like streams of light that could be traced to their source—to God, to what Dante calls “the great sea of being” in his Paradiso. Is it any wonder they responded with that metaphysical opposite of the selfie, and adored?

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Adoration of the Magi” was painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1617.

Michael J. Ortiz

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Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

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