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On 6th January we celebrate Epiphany - the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. But who were these Wise Men? No one knows for sure. Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, and that was the name of an ancient caste of a priestly kind from Persia. It wasn’t until the third century that they were called kings - by a church father, Tertullian
Another church father, Origin, assumed there were three - to correspond with the gifts given. Later Christian interpretation came to understand gold as a symbol of wisdom and wealth, incense as a symbol of worship and sacrifice, and myrrh as a symbol of healing - and even embalming. Certainly Jesus challenged and set aright the way in which the world handled all three of these things. Since the 8th century, the Magi have had the names Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior

Gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant Jesus

Epiphany is also known as ‘Twelfth Night’, or the last night of the Christmas festival. According to the song, it is also the day when that over-enthusiastic ‘true love’ of yours dumps no less than 78 presents on your doorstep, among them a dozen leaping lords of the realm and a final partridge – to go with the 11 you have already been given
In many parts of the world, 6th January is celebrated as Christmas Day. As we Western Christians are packing away our tree, the Greek Orthodox world and Catholic Spain are giving presents and celebrating the wise men, or magi. For what better time to give presents to each other, than on the day the wise men presented gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus?
What do we make of these presents? Gold is for kingship, proclaiming a royal child. Frankincense carries a feeling of worship about it: it was used in the temple worship and indicated access to the presence of God. Frankincense is thus for worship and incarnation
The third gift, myrrh, finds its place at Calvary. After the crucifixion, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’ body for burial, using myrrh as an embalming fluid. Thus, when the wise men visit the baby Jesus, the shadow of the cross already falls across the crib. But myrrh is also symbolic of love, so you could say that the third gift is about adoration as well as death. And Christ’s death on the cross is for love of the Church, His bride
As for the magi, they were not Jewish grandees, but foreign Gentiles. And so it was clear, from as early as the manger in Bethlehem, that Jesus was not just the Messiah for the Jews, but the Saviour of the whole world

Where did the Wise Men come from?

Magi from the East – it isn’t a lot to go on. The Magi had originally been a religious caste among the Persians. Their devotion to astrology, divination and the interpretation of dreams led to an extension in the meaning of the word, and by the first century the Magi in Matthew’s gospel could have been astrologers from outside of Persia. Some scholars believe they might have come from what was then Arabia Felix, or as we would say today, southern Arabia
It is true that in the first century astrology was practised there, and it was the region where the Queen of Sheba had lived. She of course had visited Solomon and would have heard the prophecies about how one day a Messiah would be born to the Israelites and become their king
Matthew’s gospel (chapter 2) is clear that the Magi asked Herod: “Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him”. So it is possible that in southern Arabia the Queen of Sheba’s story of how a Messiah would one day be sent to the Israelites had survived. Certainly, there are a number of other early legends that connect southern Arabia with Solomon’s Israel
To many people this makes sense: that the ancient stories of a Messiah, linked to later astrological study, prompted these alert and god-fearing men to the realization that something very stupendous was happening in Israel. They realized that after all these centuries, the King of the Jews, the Messiah, was about to be born
One more interesting thing that gives weight to the theory that the Magi came from southern Arabia is this: if you study any map of Palestine as it was during biblical times, you will find that the old Arabian caravan routes all entered Palestine ‘from the East’

What about the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

The story of the coming of the Magi grew in the telling. By the 6th century they had acquired names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. By medieval times they were considered to be kings. Whoever they were, we do know from Matthew that they brought three gifts to Jesus
What about their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? While we cannot know for sure what was in the minds of first century Magi, one Victorian scholar has offered a possible explanation as to the significance of their gifts. He was the Rev John Henry Hopkins, an American Episcopalian minister, who in 1857 wrote his much-loved Christmas carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’
Gold, said John Henry Hopkins, was a gift that would have been given to a king. Frankincense had traditionally been brought by priests as they worshipped God in the Temple. Myrrh was a spice that the ancients used in preparing bodies for burial
If that is true, then you could say that the Wise Men, in choosing their gifts for this infant, honoured Jesus with gold because He was King of the Jews, with frankincense because He was to be worshipped as divine, and with myrrh, because He would also become a sacrifice and die for His people
The Wise Men were the very first gentiles ever to worship Jesus. What faith they had! They travelled for months over difficult terrain, they never saw any evidence of Jesus’ kingship, His divinity or His sacrificial death. They worshipped Him through faith in God’s promises about Him. Isaiah foresaw this response to Jesus: ‘Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ The Magi’s eyes of faith saw clearly and far into the future
Compare that with the High Priest and religious leaders whom the Wise Men saw in Jerusalem when they first arrived. These head priests knew all about the prophecies of their own coming Messiah, but NOT ONE Jewish religious leader travelled to look for Him in Bethlehem. And it is only six miles down the road!
courtesy of St Andrew's Church in the Gorleston Community Magazine

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