Holy Magi

First Century
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Illustration by Frank Kacmarcik, OblSB, Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

January 6 is the traditional feast of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of three Magi, or wise men, from the East. Guided by a star, they came to Bethlehem to present precious gifts to the newborn “King of the Jews.”  

The story of these wise men, sometimes depicted as kings, has blurred with other familiar elements of the Christmas story—the manger, the shepherds, etc. But this story appears only in Matthew, where it is entwined with a story of political violence, omitted from most Christmas pageants. When the wise men—possibly astrologers from Persia—arrived in Jerusalem inquiring about a newborn “king of the Jews,” their question disturbed the incumbent King Herod. He ordered them to report back once they had found this new king. But the Magi were warned in a dream to return home by a different route. Enraged, Herod ordered the massacre of every young male child in Bethlehem.  

Numerous legends and works of art have elaborated on the story. T. S. Eliot imagined the Magi returning “to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” Whatever their fate, the Magi stand as mysterious witnesses to the birth of a new dispensation, which they mark prophetically in their gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who is going to die.  

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they found the child with Mary his mother, they fell down and worshipped him.” —Matthew 2:10-11 

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.