Magi were learned sages from the East. The word magoi, meaning “wise men,” was the Greek form of the Old Persian magav.
Perhaps Persian astrologers of a priestly caste, Matthew’s wise men are the first to seek an encounter with Jesus. Prompted by the sight of an extraordinary star that they recognize as the portent of a newborn king of the Jews, they undertake an arduous journey to find and honor him (Matthew 2:2). Since they were not Jewish, the wise men can be considered the first Gentiles to receive the call to salvation in Christ.
The visit of the Magi belongs to the earliest documented Christian traditions—the scene of their adoration is already depicted at the beginning of the second century on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Christian imagination, drawing on Isaiah 60:1-6 and Psalm 72:10-11, 15, later viewed them as “kings.” This imaginativeness even gave them names and associated them with various ages and virtues: Caspar, a young man representing the dawn and innocence, full of faith; Balthazar, with the maturity of middle age, in the noontime of life, full of hope; and Melchior, aging with the setting sun, full of years and charity.
Thirsting for truth, the wise men willingly make this long journey in search of it. . . . In contrast to these foreign seekers, the Jews’ own king is greatly disturbed (Matthew 2:3) by the thought of the birth of a royal child—a threat to his throne. An Edomite of non-Jewish background, Herod had been appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B. C. to replace the collapsing dynasty of Jewish priestly rulers. The prospect of the fulfillment of the ancient messianic prophecy troubles Herod, because it also foretold disaster for his family: “A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; . . . Edom shall be dispossessed” (Numbers 24:17-18).
After first seeking the kingly heir in Jerusalem, the Magi are directed to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6; Micah 5:2). The star wondrously guides them to the house where Mary and Joseph are staying with their infant son (Matthew 2:9-11). What a different scene meets their eyes there: in place of the riches of Herod’s palace, the homey simplicity of this poor family’s dwelling; not the power and guilty subterfuges of Herod but the weakness and innocence of a newborn baby. But the wise men are not as concerned about outward appearance as with the mysteries of faith. Looking beyond these unexpected circumstances, they recognize him whom they long sought, and fall down and humbly worship the child (2:11). Worship is the only fitting response to the presence and revelation of God. They neither ask anything of the child nor expect anything in return. Their act of adoration is satisfaction and reward enough for them when they reach their goal.
The Magi honor the child with costly gifts that symbolically reveal something of his nature and destiny to us: gold, the attribute of a king; frankincense, burnt in temples throughout the ancient world and an allusion to divinity; and myrrh, used in anointing the dead for burial and signifying that this child has been born in order to die (Matthew 2:11). Bringing more than gifts, the visitors offer their homage and faith—a prophetic sign of the Gentiles’ recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and of the universality of God’s plan of salvation.
How Mary must marvel at the strange company her baby again draws to himself! We can only imagine Mary and Joseph’s awe and amazement as this exotic caravan appears at their door. Although no words pass between the Magi and the baby, we might wonder about the conversations they held with Mary and Joseph. Did Mary tell them about the message of the heavenly host of angels and the visit of the shepherds? And did these foreign kings recognize the regal role of the young woman and accord her honor, in Eastern fashion, as “queen mother”? In works of art, Mary is often depicted with the Christ Child on her lap, her own figure forming a sort of throne for him, evoking an image of queenship.
Although Matthew does not mention Joseph, most likely he is present too. It would have been unusual and even improper in that society for Mary to receive foreign visitors alone. Moreover, Middle Eastern hospitality demands that the hosts care for their guests graciously, a responsibility Joseph would have assumed. The entourage, tired and weary from their long journey, might even have stayed several days.
Finally, the Magi return home “another way” (Mathew 2:12). Finding Christ indeed leads to living “another way,” the new way of God’s kingdom. Surely these wise men followed this new path the rest of their lives—lives now filled with greater faith, joy, hope, and peace.
This article is an excerpt from My Soul Magnifies the Lord: A Scriptural Journey with Mary by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2003). Available at wau.org/books