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The Wise Men

by Lorena Bais

The feast of the wise men or “descent of kings” is liturgically called Epiphany.
In his sermons about Epiphany, St. Augustine (4th and 5th centuries) stated that the Magi arrived on the thirteenth day after the birth of the Lord. That is, January 6th of our current calendar. 

Originally from what is now Iran, where they constituted a priestly class, the Magi had gained great influence in Babylon (now Iraq). They excelled in the study of Astronomy, or rather, astrology, which was and is, a divinatory ‘science’ based on the principle that men’s lives develop under the influence of the stars.

Through their relationship with the Jews, who had spread their messianic hopes throughout the region, the Magi had knowledge of the expected Messiah, King of the Jews, who, like all great characters, had to have a star that predicted his destiny. The nature of this star is very mysterious. 

In the gospel of St Matthew, the star plays an important role. The Magi saw a star in the East, but then lost sight of it and only found it again as they left Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem, where it moved ahead of them in a north-south direction, finally stopping over the place where the Holy Child lay. The Magi claimed to have known it as the star of Jesus. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2, 2) 

Reyes Magos

One of the traditions about the Magi from the East says that there were three, who were also kings. The Three Kings of the East: Melchior, a long-bearded old man who gives the Lord gold as befits a King. Caspar, a barefaced young man who gives him incense (a perfume based on resin of trees that was burnt in the temple) as a tribute to his Divinity. Balthazar, the black king, who gives Jesus myrrh (scented dust that is mixed with oil to consecrate priests, or also, mixed with wine to help soothe pains), as a prophecy of his death and suffering.

As to the number of Magi, archaeological monuments fluctuate considerably: a fresco in the catacombs of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus in Rome represents two; a sarcophagus that is preserved in the Lateran Museum shows three; four appear in the catacombs of St. Domitilla and up to eight in a glass of the Kirchner Museum Davos.  In oral Syrian and Armenian traditions, twelve are spoken of. 

However, the number of three prevailed, perhaps because of  the correlation with the three gifts they offered: gold, incense, and myrrh, or because they were believed to be representatives of three known races: Caucasian, Mongolian or Eastern and Aethiopian  (from Sem, Cam, and Japheth, the sons of Noah who gave rise to those races). 

The definitive number is proclaimed in the West by Pope St. Leo I in the 5th century. He also establishes their ages at 20, 40 and 60 years; and their races as Caucasian, Eastern and Aethiopian, which were the only ones known in at the time. 

As to their names, St. Bede the Venerable, an English theologian of the early 8th century, was one of the first who used the names that are so familiar to us today: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. At the end of the 7th century and in the 9th century, an anonymous manuscript appearing in Paris and Italy respectively, shows the names Bisthisares, Melechior and Guthaspa. 

Their status as kings has no historical foundation; it appears that this is inferred from Psalm 72 which says: “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” In ancient representations of Christian art, they never appear with regal attributes, but simply with a Phrygian cap and robes of Persian nobles.

Ancient documents also differ as to the place of their origin. Some make them come from Persia (present-day Iran), others from Babylon or Arabia, and others from Egypt or Ethiopia. However, archaeological data from the time of Constantine reveals the antiquity of the tradition that seems to better interpret the intention of the Evangelist, making them come from Persia. This was due to a synodal letter of the Council of Jerusalem of 836, stating that in the year 614, when the Persian soldiers of Khosrow II destroyed all the shrines of Palestine, they respected the Constantinian Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, because when they saw the mosaic of the frontispiece depicting the worship of the Magi, their apparel led them to believe that they were their fellow countrymen.

In 1164, Frederick I, by name Frederick Barbarossa (Italian: Redbeard), German king and Holy Roman emperor (1152–90), gave the city of Cologne the relics of the Magi, which were taken from Holy Land to Milan, and from there to Cologne. Thousands of pilgrims began arriving in Cologne to see the rich treasure of the legendary Magi. Thus, in 1248 the construction of a cathedral that would live up to such a treasure began – the Cathedral of Cologne. Today, the cathedral is one of the most impressive Gothic monuments in Europe whose construction lasted more than 600 years.

Catedral de Colonia,
Cologne Cathedral

 En 1164, el emperador alemán Federico Barbarroja regaló a la ciudad de Colonia las reliquias de los Reyes Magos, mismas que fueron trasladadas desde la Tierra Santa a Milán, y desde ahí a Colonia. Miles de peregrinos empezaron a llegar a Colonia para ver el rico tesoro de los legendarios Reyes Magos. Así, en 1248 inició la construcción de una catedral que estaría a la altura de tal tesoro, la de Colonia. Hoy, dicha catedral es uno de los monumentos góticos más impresionantes de Europa cuya construcción duró más de 600 años.

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