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)

The Cave of Bethlehem

Eastern Orthodox icon of the birth of Christ by St. Andrei Rublev, 15th century. Note that the shepherd speaking with St. Joseph in the lower left is shown in profile, a pose reserved only for this shepherd, the Devil,  and for Judas Iscariot and which indicates their interior wickedness and efforts to hide themselves from God. Also, the cave in which Christ is born is painted with the same absolute black pigment -- unmixed with any other dark colors, which is more usual -- as is the tomb of Christ or the abyss of Hell, into which the Divine Presence has entered.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the birth of Christ by St. Andrei Rublev, 15th century. Note that the shepherd speaking with St. Joseph in the lower left is shown in profile, a pose reserved only for this shepherd, the Devil, and for Judas Iscariot and which indicates their interior wickedness and efforts to hide themselves from God. Also, the cave in which Christ is born is painted with the same absolute black pigment — unmixed with any other dark colors, which is more usual — as is the tomb of Christ or the abyss of Hell, into which the Divine Presence has entered.

We talk about Christ being born in a manger, in a stable and most crèche scenes have the manger inside a straw-roofed hut. But traditional depictions based on ancient models, like the icon above, show the manger inside a cave instead of a straw-roofed hut. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also marks the traditional place of the manger inside a cave beneath the church. Why?

In the Middle East, animals were often stabled in the small caves that dotted the countryside. The inn at Bethlehem that offered a place to Joseph and Mary doubtless had a stable-cave attached. But in western Europe during the 1200s, when it began to be common to erect crèche scenes, the stables there that people were used to seeing were huts. Not caves. So Europeans and Americans expect to see a manger in a hut, not a cave. But the cave was the more likely, original, and actual location of the manger.

A lot of traditional poetry for both Christmas and Good Friday point out that Christ was born and buried in a cave that belonged to someone else, each time protected by a man named Joseph. His swaddling bands, the strips of cloth a baby was wrapped in to keep him/her warm and cozy, look like a the strips of cloth a corpse might be wrapped in. The manger itself looks like a coffin. The celebration of the incarnation and birth of Christ already points to the celebration of his death and resurrection.

In Orthodox icons (such as the one above), the Star of Bethlehem is often depicted not as a bright light but as a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the “divine darkness” or Uncreated Light of Divine grace, with a ray pointing to “the place where the young child lay” (Matt 2:9). Sometimes the faint image of an angel is drawn inside the dark semi-circle, pointing the way for the Magi.

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.