Who Came to Adore the Lord
The "wise men", or "Magi" (Latin plural for magus), of St. Matthew's account are traditionally known as the "Three Holy Kings" who came to adore the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Many Rationalists and some Modernists denounce the Gospel narrative as a work of fiction; while other Modernists (posing as "believers") have translated Magi as "astrologers", "sorcerers", or "magicians" of some kind. With their customary arrogance and lack of reverence for venerable Catholic tradition, these heretics do not shrink from attacking even well-established historical facts.
As faithful Catholics, however, we know that the story of the Three Holy Kings is a historical fact, the Scriptural account being proven by the evidence of all the ancient manuscripts and sacred writings, and the authority of the Fathers of the Church, as well as recent archeological discoveries. Although the Gospels of St. Mark and St. John do not speak of the royal visit to Bethlehem, this is merely because these Evangelists begin their Gospels with the public life of Our Divine Lord. That St. John knew and taught the story of the Three Holy Kings is clear from the fact that St. Irenaus (Adv. Haer. III 9:2) bears witness to it, for as the disciple of St. John, he is the faithful herald of the Johannine tradition. St. Luke, the third Evangelist to write, does not mention it either, quite naturally, since the fact is told well enough by the author of the first synoptic Gospel, St. Matthew. Likewise, St. Luke's detailed description of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Circumcision, and the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, are not recounted in the other Gospels, but no one would deny that these facts from the Childhood of Jesus are nonetheless true.
Who were the Magi?
The term Magi, dealt with by Modernists in such an off-hand fashion, is a specific description given to us by St. Matthew of the Three Kings' identity. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (I, 101), tells us that Magi is the name of the royal priestly order of the Medes. They were the sacred rulers of ancient Mesopotamia, and had continuously reigned while several empires rose and fell. After the downfall of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, their religion held sway throughout Persia, and one of the Magi, Gaumâta, ruled the Empire as Smerdis I in the sixth century before Christ. Although the Persians were subjugated by Alexander the Great in 311 B.C., the Macedonian Conqueror left their native rule largely intact. As a consequence, at the time of the Birth of Christ, during the Parthian dominion, the Magi maintained their ruling function throughout Persia (Ctesias, Persica, 10-15). The historian Strabo (11, 9:3) says that these Kings formed one of the two ruling councils of the Parthian Empire.
All that we have learned from non-Biblical sources of the kingly character of the Magi is confirmed by Holy Mother Church. In Her liturgy, She applies to them these words: "Kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; Kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore Him, all nations shall serve Him." (Psalm 71:10-11) And from the seventh century, they are venerated as saints in the Martyrology: St. Gaspar, on the first of January, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, on the eleventh of the same month. (Acta Sanctorum, 1:8, 323, 664)
The Religious Beliefs of the Magi Kings
The religion of the Magi – before Christ manifested the True God to them in Person – seems to have been heavily influenced by the dispersion of the Israelites throughout Persia, after the destruction of their Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians. They believed in an all-powerful Creator-God, Who is also addressed as an intimate friend, Who loves justice and hates iniquity, Who rewards good and punishes evil. Although these truths were also mixed with certain pagan errors, the Magi Kings enforced a high moral code and their rule was benevolent and just. Under their influence, Cyrus, the great Persian conqueror (539 B.C.), allowed the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland, and even gave them money to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Ignorant of both history and archeology, some Modernists and so-called biblical "scholars" have begun to refer to the Magi Kings as "astrologers", "sorcerers", or "magicians". The beliefs of these rulers, however, which are well documented, strictly forbade such superstitious practices. It is true that they were extremely well educated on the movements of the stars and planets, since one of their beliefs held that the movements of these heavenly bodies corresponded to events which occurred on earth. This science, however, was merely the means used by God for the miraculous Revelation made to them concerning the Birth of the Messiah.
The Roman historians Virgil, Horace, Tacitus (Hist. 5:13), and Suetonius (Vespas., 4), bear witness that, at the time of the Birth of Christ, there was throughout the Roman Empire a general unrest and expectation of a Golden Age and a Great Deliverer. It is certain that the Magi Kings were familiar with the great Messianic prophesies, since there were large numbers of the Chosen People in their midst, who did not return from exile with Nehemias. When Christ was born, there was a Hebrew population in Babylon, and throughout Persia. One can easily see the providence of God preparing the hearts of these Gentile Kings for His Coming, since they were led by such influences to look forward to a Messiah Who would soon appear.
But as Pope St. Leo the Great declares, there must have been some special Divine Revelation whereby the Kings knew that "His Star" meant the birth of a king, that this new-born King was God Himself, and that they should be led by His Star to the exact place of the God-King's Birth (St. Leo, Serm. 34 on the Epiphany, 4:3). Modernists would have us believe that they knew this solely on the basis of their erroneous philosophy and knowledge of the stars. But according to their own religious philosophy, the sudden appearance of a new and brilliant star only suggested to the Magi the birth of an important person, not a divinity. Yet the Kings came to Bethlehem "to adore Him", that is, to acknowledge the Divinity of this newborn King. God in His infinite mercy had revealed to them the true identity of the Infant King they sought.
That the Magi were led by a star is clear from the words which St. Matthew uses in his Gospel. Rationalists, Modernists, and some Protestants, in their efforts to escape the supernatural, have put forward a number of false explanations. Some claim that the star of the Magi was a comet. But there is no record of any such comet. Others claim the star was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred in 7 B.C., or of Jupiter and Venus (6 B.C.)., or even that the Kings may have seen a stella nova, a star which suddenly increases in magnitude and brilliancy and then fades away. But these rationalistic theories all fail to explain how "the Star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the Child was." (Matt. 2:9)
The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies, at most, one degree each day. No fixed star could have so moved "before them" as to lead to Bethlehem, since neither a fixed star nor comet could have disappeared, and reappeared, and then stood still. No, the Star of Bethlehem could only have been a miraculous phenomenon. It was like the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the camp by night during Israel's Exodus from Egypt, or to the "brightness of God" shone round about the shepherds (Luke 2:9), or to "the light from Heaven" which shone around about the stricken Saul on his way to Damascus (Acts of the Apostles 9:3).
Coming from the East (Matt. 2:1,2,9), the Fathers of the Church tell us that these royal pilgrims uniquely represented all of the great Eastern civilizations: Media, Persia, Assyria, Babylon, and Arabia. (St. Maximus, Homily 18 on the Epiphany; Theodotus of Ancyra, Homily on the Nativity, 1:10; St. Clement of Alexandria, Strom. I, 15; St. Cyril of Alexandria, In Is. 49:12; St. Justin Martyr, Contr. Tryphon. 77; Tertullian, Adv. Jud. 9; and St. Epiphanius, Expos. Fidei 8.) They crossed the great Syrian Desert lying between the Euphrates and Syria, and journeyed onward to Damascus and southward, by what is now known as "the Pilgrim's Way", keeping the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho.
All told, Jerusalem was a journey of between 1000 and 1200 miles. Such a distance may have taken any time between three months and a year by camel, depending upon the exact route and the number of places where a caravan would stop for trade. There are various opinions concerning the specific time of the visit of the Three Holy Kings at Bethlehem. St. Augustine, however, held that their arrival occurred on the exact date upon which Holy Mother Church now celebrates that blessed event, the sixth of January, thirteen days after the Nativity of our Redeemer.
The arrival of the eastern Kings caused a great stir in Jerusalem; everybody, even King Herod, heard of their pious quest, "And King Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). Herod and the Jewish priests should have been gladdened at the news, but instead they were "troubled", for their hearts and lives were already closed to this striking manifestation of God's grace. It is a sad fact that, although the priests showed the Holy Kings the way to the Messiah, they pridefully refused to follow that way themselves.
The Adoration of the Three Holy Kings
Following the Star some six miles southward to Bethlehem, the journey of the Magi Kings finally came to an end.
The Magi adored the Child as the True God, and offered Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although the giving of gifts was in keeping with Oriental custom, these particular gifts had an important significance: the priceless gold signified that He was the King of Kings, the aromatic frankincense represented His Divinity, and the bitter myrrh bore testimony to the terrible sufferings which the Child would suffer in His human nature for the Redemption of mankind.
Having adored the new-born Messiah, the Holy Kings were warned in their sleep not to return to Herod, and "they went back another way into their country" (Matt. 2:12). This other way probably led them back to the River Jordan, avoiding Jerusalem and Jericho, which is where Herod was to be found, by a roundabout way south through Beersheba, then east to the Great Highway – the "Pilgrims' Way" – in the land of Moab and beyond the Dead Sea.
The miraculous manifestation of the True Faith to the Three Kings bore marvelous fruit in them. From the limitations of the merely natural sphere, in which they were both learned and just; they were transformed into truly spiritual men, apostles, martyrs, and saints. It is an ancient tradition that after the Crucifixion of Our Divine Lord, they were baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle, and that they themselves were consecrated Bishops, becoming apostles to the Gentiles in their own countries. Having accomplished much for the spread of Christianity, they sealed their belief in the Redeemer with their own blood, each suffering martyrdom for the true Catholic Faith.
The Relics of the Three Magi Kings were discovered in Persia through the zealous efforts of St. Helena, mother of the first Christian Emperor, St. Constantine. Having been brought to Constantinople by the Empress, the relics were then transferred to Milan in the fifth century. During the stormy period of conflict in Italy in the second half of the twelfth century, the German Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, brought these sacred relics to Köln (Cologne), Germany, in 1163 (Acta Sanctorum, I, 323). Since that time their relics have been carefully preserved in a magnificent reliquary in the Cathedral of Köln, where the Catholic faithful of nine centuries have gone to venerate these first adorers of the Redeemer from the Gentile world.
What happiness indeed, to have been miraculously called from the darkness of the Gentiles to the Divine light of the Incarnate Word, and to have been taught the sublime lessons of the Gospel even before they were preached to the world! Certainly, God was not obliged to depart from the ordinary ways of Providence by calling them, and favoring them with the miraculous star. In the ordinary course of events – born, educated, and living in the midst of heathen darkness and vice – the Holy Kings, although naturally good men, were destined to walk the broad path that leads to destruction. But the wonderful grace of their calling and conversion drew them out of 'Babylon', set them straight in the paths of justice, and made them new men in Jesus Christ our Savior.
We too have passed from darkness into the admirable light of God. Our hearts have been illuminated with the splendors of the True Catholic Faith, whose light discovers to us the true path to eternal life, and dispels the false maxims of a world buried in darkness. Seeking to follow our Crucified Redeemer in this narrow path of virtue and salvation, we find ourselves in the welcome company of those among the first to tread it, the glorious Magi, the Three Holy Kings, faithfully following His Star.
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