15 January 2024

Tradition places the three Magi in the stable. This is not biblical because by then Mary and her child had settled in a house. Myths and legends have done a lot to history. But Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is celebrated to this day.

The story in the second chapter of Matthew has twelve verses. In the first two verses we can read that Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked where the king of the Jews has been born. They asked the wrong person because when King Herod heard about this he was disturbed and called together all the scribes and teachers of the law, who explained to Him what the Jewish scriptures said about a Messiah. Secretly, Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem to act as spies for him. The star they had seen when it arose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. Overjoyed, after the disappointment in Jerusalem, the Magi went into the house, where they fell down before Jesus in a gesture of deep respect and submission—they touched the ground with their foreheads, a homage that is usually only paid to a king. They had gifts with them and presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. God sent them back to their country another way to protect Jesus from Herod’s bloodbath.

How the Magi became three kings

How did the Magi of indeterminate number evolve into three kings? Well, at first the number fluctuated. Finally, in the third century, Origen pegged it at the number three. Three stems from the fact that there were three gifts. And since the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were extremely valuable, it was assumed that their bearers must also be of royal lineage.

Before long, the three Magi were given names. In the Syrian tradition, they were called Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In Armenian tradition, there are two kings called Kagba and Badadilma. In Ethiopia there are two traditions, one with Tanisuram, Mika and Sisisba and one with Awnison, Libtar, and Kasäd. In Western tradition, the blessing Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless this house”) came to into use first. The names developed from the initials C, M, and B: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

More and more, the kings receive a distinctive image

Tradition not only gave the Magi their names, but also an approximate age and nationality. The ages were to represent the three ages of human beings: one was young, another was middle-aged, and the third was an old man. In the eighth century, they were assigned to represent the three families of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And in the twelfth century, a continent of origin was defined for each of the three men: Africa, Europe, and Asia. These were the three known continents at the time.

What the gifts have to tell us

Gold is a precious metal. Frankincense is an aromatic resin from the trees and shrubs of the genus Boswellia and is used as a perfume and incense in sacrificial service. Myrrh is also a resin and is used in medicine. Because of its strong smell it was also used in perfume and for embalming.

Origen already saw the death of Christ foreshadowed in myrrh. Viewed positively, however, one could say that the medicinal properties of myrrh represent Jesus as the Saviour who brings salvation to humankind. Gold alludes to the kingship of Jesus: He is the true ruler. The incense used in sacrificial service is a reference to the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ and, according to Origen, makes people aware of Jesus’ divinity. Isaiah already referred to gold and incense in his prophecy (Isaiah 60: 5–6), and in Psalm 72: 15 we can read that gold was a typical gift for kings.

He came for all people

The Greek word Epiphany means “manifestation”. God manifested Himself to human beings through His Son. And not just to the Jews, but to people all over the world. The Magi were not Jews. They were Gentiles, a term meaning “not Jewish”. The word “behold” at the beginning of the story indicates that this is something completely new and surprising. The event thus heralds that Jesus has appeared for all human beings, and what awaits the Son of God from then on: many Jews reject Him, while God’s rule as king opens up for all nations.

On Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day as it is sometimes called, we commemorate God’s physical manifestation to humankind. Christ brings salvation to all human beings, regardless of their skin colour, origin, or past. Those who seek Jesus are to find Him. It is an invitation to all to worship God in the incarnate Jesus and to follow Him.


Photo: Jacob Lund - stock.adobe.com