The Epiphany is the perfect time for a closer look at the Magi and their gifts
Cologne’s magnificent cathedral stands on a rise overlooking the Rhine. As is true of so many Catholic churches, the cathedral’s architect designed it in the shape of a cross. On the church roof, at the point where the upright and the crossbeam meet, there is a tall, thin spire that’s topped—not with a cross as you’d expect—but with a multipointed golden star. The reason: directly below the star-crowned spire lie the relics of the Wise Men, the Magi who followed a star out of their homelands in the East and came to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child, the newborn king. We’ll return to the relics in a moment, but first let’s look at the great feast of the Epiphany and how the Fathers of the Church interpreted the story of the three kings and found profound meaning in their choice of gifts. The term Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “manifestation.” When the angel appeared to the shepherds of Bethlehem, he announced to the Jews that the Messiah they had longed to see for centuries had come at last and was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. But Christ had not come into the world only to bring salvation to the children of Israel, he had come to save all of humanity, and so when three Gentiles—the three kings—arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, the Christ Child made it manifest. In short, he revealed himself to them as the Savior of the entire world.
To underscore this point, in the Middle Ages artists routinely depicted one of the kings as an African—an illustration that depicts the global character of Christ’s mission. T he story of the Wise Men is found in the Bible only in Matthew 2:1–12. The Magi presented the Infant Jesus with three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A seventh-century work known as Excerpta et Collectanea, attributed to the English historian and theologian St. Bede the Venerable (673–735), interprets the gifts in this way: gold recognized Christ as king—remember the question the Magi asked of Herod, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” The second gift, frankincense, recognized that Christ is God. Throughout the ancient world, frankincense was burned in temples to pay homage to the god worshiped there. We’re told that great clouds of it billowed up in the Temple of Jerusalem. And of course, at solemn Masses and at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, incense is still burned to honor Almighty God. The third gift, myrrh, recognized a great mystery—that although Christ is fully divine, he is also fully human. Myrrh is a pungent perfume that was used in the ancient world to anoint the bodies of the dead, so the gift of myrrh not only recognized Christ’s humanity but it also foretold that some day he would die. By the way, you can find a poetic interpretation of the symbolism of the gifts in the lyrics of that classic Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” The best symbols remain meaningful forever, and in the symbolism of the gifts of the three kings we have a gift that keeps on giving. These were not random presents for a newborn but were laden with significance to believers for all time because they reveal the mystery of Christ’s nature and the magnitude of his power. He is “true God” and “became man,” as we say when we recite the Nicene Creed, and he is king over all creation. Understanding the symbolism of the gifts elevates those three figures in the Christmas crib from something pretty to something profound. Now let’s return to the relics of the three kings, said to be preserved in the Cathedral of Cologne. It is the largest reliquary in the Western world, measuring 87 inches long, 60 inches high, and 43 inches wide.—Written by Thomas J. Craughwell
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