What is the significance of the Three Wise Men?
Three Kings Day, also known as Little Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, is celebrated on Jan. 6 as the occasion when three gift-bearing Magi visited the Christ child. Beyond that, little is known about the “Three Kings of Orient” celebrated in a classic Christmas carol. This week’s clergy discuss what their epiphany represents to Christians today.
The Rev. David Collins
Pastor, United Methodist Church of Port Washington
Matthew is the only gospel referencing the arrival of the Magi, specifying that they bring three gifts, not necessarily the number of Magi that arrived. The importance of their arrival and gifts offered bring great meaning to the story. Matthew was Jewish and possibly a Pharisee, so his inclusion of the Magi was a reference to eastern gentile wisdom, which also included astrology, and was perhaps viewed in a negative light by the Jewish community. Yet this point brings us to the conclusion that gentiles were included in the birth of the Messiah. Upon the Magi’s arrival, their bowing down to the infant offered the respect shown divinity, as did the gift of gold. The other gifts have sparked debate, but I see frankincense representing the presence of God as an incense and myrrh as an anointing oil, both of which have significance throughout Jesus’ messianic journey and our own Christian tradition. Being Southern, I recently learned about a tradition called “chalking of the door.” In a ceremony held around the Epiphany, the letters “C,” “M” and “B” are chalked on a home’s entrance to bless all who live or visit there. My father-in-law, František Ábel, said that, traditionally, the initials represented names of those Three Wise Men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. However, the meaning actually is Christus mansionem benedicat, Latin for “Christ, bless this house.” Regardless, the inclusion of gentiles and recognition of the Christ child as Messiah ultimately point to the clearest meaning of the Three Wise Men.
The Rev. Joseph Garofalo
Outreach pastor, Island Christian Church, Northport
We don’t have a lot of information about the Three Wise Men, sometimes called the Three Kings or the Magi, the latter a Greek term that describes a class of wise men and priests who were also astrologers. From the gospel of Matthew, we know they came from the Eastern Christian tradition. (Matthew 2:1-12) It doesn’t say anywhere that there were three, but we get that idea because they came with three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We learn from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament (Daniel 2:10) and other historical writings that the Magi were members of a priestly group descended from a tribe associated with the Medes and Persians, and that they were astrologers. They were basically pagans, dwelling in the area of ancient Babylon. Their background was largely eastern religion; they used science and astrology. However, some were influenced by the God of the prophet Daniel, which is the one, true God. Centuries later, it was that same influence that compelled a group of Magi to seek the one, true God. Why is this in the story of the birth account of the Savior? Firstly, Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as King of the Jews — a fulfillment of the Jewish prophecy of the Messiah. The fact that non-Jews could seek the Messiah reveals that Jesus isn’t just the Jewish Messiah; He came for everyone. There is also significance in the types of gifts that the Magi presented. Each one represents one aspect of Jesus. Gold represents his kingship, frankincense was a symbol of his priestly role and myrrh, an anointing oil used in preparation for a burial, which prefigures his sacrificial death.
Father Moussa Shafik
St. Abraam Coptic Orthodox Church, Woodbury
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “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.” The star, which they had seen in the east, went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Early church father Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) stated several times in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Magi who visited the young Jesus were from Arabia. It is possible, however, that the Magi were from Persia, further east of Arabia. Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 AD), a Jewish philosopher living around the time of Jesus, wrote favorably about an Eastern School of Magi. The visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-18) is intriguing. It is intriguing that these noble and wise astronomers were compelled to make such a long and difficult journey, and that they were so sure, despite the ignorance of others (Matthew 2:3), that the child they were worshipping was truly the “King of the Jews.” The word worship derives from an Old English word meaning worthiness or meritoriousness, and thus, the significance was that the Magi were giving God the recognition He deserves.