Matthew 2:1-12 records the only canonical account of the arrival of wise men from the East. The Epiphany is often regarded as the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, so it is interesting that it happens in Matthew, perhaps the most ‘Jewish’ Gospel, and not Luke or John, and indeed Paul the ‘apostle to the gentiles’ does not reference the event either’.
We also have no idea how many wise men from the East there were. There has been a traditional ascription of three, as matching the number gifts they brought. The names associated in tradition are:
- Melchior a Persian Name suggested often as a Persian Astronomer
- Caspar an Indian Name and generally described as an Indian Scholar
- Balthazaar an Arabic Name also described as a scholar
For the tradition that sorts the names and the places which might be encompassed in the term ‘The East’. The Indian connection seems to be interesting, especially in light of the strong possibility of Thomas having gone to India. Chinese Christians prefer to believe that they came from China. There is little in the way of early corroborating evidence to support the tradition, and Matthews Gospel seems to stand alone here.
The account suggests that they followed a star, and they arrived in Jerusalem, It seems reasonable that a new King of the Jews would be found in the capital, and quite reasonable to call on the extant King to make the enquiry. This suggests that they saw the star as a guide, to which they have applied reason and common sense.
Herod, and the Herod’s generally get bad press in scripture, on being asked about a new king asks his learned people where the Messiah is to be born. It seems that Herod knew the right question to ask, and it certainly takes the story up a notch. Having received the answer ‘Bethlehem‘ the wise men then follow the star to Bethlehem.
A long time after the shepherds this group arrives, and they are welcome, and they too find kneeling space in the straw, and present the three gifts and exit stage left in a hurry.
The gifts of course may be the point of the story.
- Gold as might be expected for a King
- Frankincense as does declare Divinity
- Myrrh the burial spice of the Jews.
Save for the unending war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent that follows their departure the role of the Wise Men is summed up in one remarkable event without any follow up at all.
There have been a number of suggestions that the star was the alignment of several star so as to create the sensation of the ‘new defiant light that blazed in the heavens’. This is all good, but does not seem to quite explain Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Perhaps Evelyn Waugh has been one of the most helpful insighte to the story for me in his book Helena.
“This is my day,” she thought, “and these are my kind.”
Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of ουτοπια or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day’s toys.
“Like me,” she said to them, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed among the disconcerted stars.
“How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
“Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”