Wise Men Finally Arrive–Only 2 Years After the Shepherds!

Master of Vyšší Brod, a Bohemian master, c. 1350. The influence of Italian Byzantine painting was strong in the court of Charles IV.

According to the New Testament, the wise men arrived in Bethlehem when Jesus was already two years old! By then, the manger had been put away and the shepherds had all gone home. But the wise men (“magi”) had seen the conjunction (“star”) in the sky and had travelled from Babylon to Palestine to bring their gifts to the newborn King.

“We have seen his star in the East,” the magi told King Herod. “We have come to worship him.”

This news was a surprise to King Herod. He had no idea that a new King of the Jews had been born and had clearly NOT seen the star the magi had. What was the “star” which the magi claimed they had seen and which had told them to come find the newborn King in Judea? Since no one in Jerusalem seems to have seen it, the star could not have been a bright light in the sky or they would have noticed it. Since the Gospel text says that Herod later had all the boys aged two years or younger killed in his attempt to kill the Christ Child, the “star” must have been an astronomical event of some sort rather than a bright light or all the other parents whose children were butchered by Herod’s soldiers would have pointed out the house and said, “No! Not our children — the boy you want is in that house! There!” Also, the magi evidently had seen the star at least 2 years before and it had taken them that long to travel to Jerusalem.

When the wise men did finally arrive in Bethlehem, they are shown presenting their gifts to the Christ Child in the lap of his Virgin Mother. The oldest of the wise men is always in such a hurry to bow down before Christ that he trips and steps on his crown, as in the altarpiece below. (Click here to see a stunning collection of Nativity scenes, some with the shepherds and some with the wise men.)

I remember reading reports in December 1975 (my senior year of high school!) that the “star” was in fact a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces — and that this conjunction occurs once every 800 years! The magi, being astrologers, would have understood this to mean that a great king (Jupiter) who would usher in the End of Days (Saturn) was being born in Judea (Pisces). This conjunction occurred in December 1975, according to these reports, but I was unable to see it as I was not sure exactly where to look in the sky or on which date(s) to look.

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Map of Bones

In the wrong hands, the bones of the Magi could destroy the world!

During a crowded service at a cathedral in Germany, armed intruders in monks’ robes unleash a nightmare of blood and destruction. But the killers have not come for gold; they seek a more valuable prize: the bones of the Magi who once paid homage to a newborn savior . . . a treasure that could reshape the world.

With the Vatican in turmoil, Sigma Force under the command of Grayson Pierce leaps into action, pursuing a deadly mystery that weaves through sites of the Seven Wonders of the World and ends at the doorstep of an ancient, mystical, and terrifying secret order. For there are those with dark plans for the stolen sacred remains that will alter the future of humankind . . . when science and religion unite to unleash a horror not seen since the beginning of time.

Looking for a good book to read this summer? I highly recommend Map of Bones by James Rollins.

The book opens with an attack on the relics (bones) of the Magi in Cologne on July 23, the anniversary of the day the relics were brought to Cologne in 1164. The Three Kings were very popular and attracted a constant stream of pilgrims to Cologne. Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral was begun in 1248 to house these important relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete and is now the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.

A mystery, “The Bishop and the Three Kings” by Andrew Greeley, is also about the theft of the shrine.

Read more about the shrine of the Magi in Cologne here.

Christmas in July? (part 2)

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Nicholas of Verdun, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones (1190-1220), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany.

Shrine of the Three Kings (detail), Nicholas of Verdun, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones (1190-1220), Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany.

The Magi were extremely popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They were considered powerful protectors against the “falling sickness” (epilepsy). They were also invoked in all-purpose protective prayers or charms, such as one attributed to Charlemagne.

The Magi were considered to represent the whole of the Gentile world because the three men included an Asian and an African with the European; they underscored the idealized inclusivity of the Christian world. The African magus — and African Christians in Ethiopia, such as the eunuch baptized by the Apostle Phillip in the Acts of the Apostles (8:27) — were looked on as special patrons of the people of Bohemia since both Bohemia and Ethiopia were on the edges of the (western) Christian world. The city of Kandahar in Afghanistan is thought to have been founded by and named for Gaspar, one of the Magi.

The relics of the Magi at Cologne were among the most popular pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages. Their presence helped bolster the importance of the Germanic bishops both as supporters of the Popes or in opposition to them.

More information about the Magi in the Middle Ages can be found here and here.

The excellent Journey of the Magi by Richard Trexler might by a good thing to read in anticipation of Christmas. Better to read it NOW, before the hectic pre-holiday season arrives!