The story of the Magi, or Wise Men, is famous and mysterious, relatively short in length (and appearing only in the Gospel of Matthew) but long in its influence on the imagination of readers. It comes with intriguing questions: Who were those "Magi from the east" who traveled far seeking the "newborn king of the Jews"? How did they know about this king? Why did they seek him? And in what way was he connected to the star they followed?
Complete answers to these questions are elusive, if not impossible, to come by. A magus, in the ancient Near East, could be one of many things: a Persian priest, a magician, or someone practicing various occultic arts. The Magi seeking the Christ Child were most likely Persian astrologers, whose stature was based in their ability to study and interpret the movements of the stars. Some of the early Church Fathers, such as Origen, believed these Magi had descended from the pagan prophet Balaam. "A star shall advance from Jacob," Balaam had stated, "and a staff shall rise from Israel, That shall smite the brows of Moab, and the skulls of all the Shuthites" (Nm 24:17). This prophecy was most likely known by the Magi, for the Israelites had spent many decades in exile in Persia.
St. Matthew, in writing about the Magi, undoubtedly wanted his first-century readers to think of Isaiah 60, today's reading from the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah wrote of a future time when the entire world would be blessed by the glory of Jerusalem. "Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance." This "wealth of nations" would include caravans of camels bearing gifts of "gold and frankincense" "with the elites and leaders of those nations "proclaiming the praises of the Lord." This same theme is taken up in Psalm 72: "May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him" (Ps 72:10-11).
So the Magi represent the first of a countless number of Gentiles brought into the family of God through the Christ Child, who is not only King of the Jews, but the King of kings. "In the Magi," the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation" (No. 528).
The Magi represent everyone who seeks truth and who acknowledges that Jesus Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). And this, I think, is a significant reason for the appeal of the story of the Magi. Times passes, kingdoms and governments come and go, but man's nature and needs remain the same. Man is rational and spiritual; he hungers to know his place in the world; he seeks truth and meaning.
But Matthew's account also shows that man can be self-seeking and an enemy of truth. King Herod, a man of substantial genius and drive, attempted to trick the Magi in order to find and kill the newborn King. Like so many who work only to build up their personal kingdom, he "blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos," as the National Geographic puts it so well ("King Herod Revealed," December 2008).
Blessed with great gifts, Herod used them for his own glory. The Magi, also blessed with gifts, used them to worship the true God: "They prostrated themselves and did him homage." Possessing earthly treasures, Herod sought to jealously guard them; the Magi brought earthly treasures in recognition of the heavenly gift held by the Blessed Virgin.
Christmas announces that man has been offered the greatest gift possible: the divine life of God. We, in response, offer the treasures of our lives, our talents, and of our praises to the Lord.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.