Wise Men know to pursue what is written on the sky
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
The feast of the “Epiphany” (which means “manifestation”) celebrates the manifestation of God: God is revealed as a human being in Jesus Christ.
In this drama, the Magi have come to the divine Child, as the conclusion of a long process of investigation. The Gospel doesn’t name or number the Wise Men. But it does say they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
That’s why it has been assumed the number of Wise Men was three. They brought three gifts. But why these three?
Often the gifts are understood to have symbolic meaning: The gold signifies Christ’s kingship. The perfumed scent of frankincense signifies the perfect holiness of his priestly role. And the myrrh, which is a spice used in embalming, signifies the bitterness of death.
The well-known carol, “We Three Kings,” adopts this interpretation. It explains the gifts in three poetic verses. We can imagine them being sung by three different singers, for example, staged as a musical. The first wise man would sing of his gift of gold:
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Then the second wise man would sing of his gift of frankincense:
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Then the third wise man would sing of his gift of myrrh:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
In retrospect, the symbols make perfect sense in relation to Christ’s life. But it seems strange that the Magi would know the divine Child’s life story in advance. How could they possibly know beforehand to bring such symbolically appropriate gifts?
One might point to their being gifted in the science of accurate predictions based upon a knowledge of astronomy. Presumably, if they could perform the impressive feat of tracking down a divine Child in a manger, something that would be difficult even with today’s GPS systems, then maybe their mental powers could achieve even longer-range forecasting about that same divine Child. They were so good at astronomy, they could even predict his crucifixion!
But such a conjecture strains credulity. More appropriate would be an interpretation that emphasizes the unique motion of the star. The star was a divine initiative that actively led them, more so than their own powers of astronomical expertise did.
Of course, the Magi would not even have been open to the possibility of being led by the divine initiative, unless they had already been habituated in their detailed observations of the heavens.
For thousands of years, astronomers in the East had observed the sky and made painstaking records about the regular movements of planets and stars. A huge written database of empirical observations had established a solid body of experiential knowledge about repeated patterns in the night sky.
The significance of the star of Bethlehem, then, seems to be that it interrupted the regular patterns of what had usually been observed in the sky. Like all good scientists, the Magi are extremely curious about an intriguing new data point. Therefore, as the line from “The First Noel” puts it so well, they doggedly follow the star “wherever it went.”
This suggests to me that the heart of the story is a lesson about divine revelation and human reason: namely, thinking like a scientist actively leads you to God.
For the scientific mind, God eventually shines out in an “epiphany,” that is, with a “manifestation” of divine grace in a vividly incarnate way. This shining forth is given to people who, like those aristocratic scientists from the East, pursue him with every intellectual resource at their disposal.
Intellectually speaking, the thousands of years of written records about the movements in the night sky, possessed by the Eastern astronomers, were truly magnificent human achievements. The human race could rightly be proud of this royal record of scientific achievement from the ancient world. The Wise Men’s story alludes to the prowess in predicting the future based on astronomical knowledge.
Yet the Magi didn’t present the divine Child with star charts and tabulations of observations. Instead, they offered to God other gifts: the ones possessing the most divine qualities they had discovered to date.
Gold as a divine gift needs no explanation. But consider why the Wise Men offered two kinds of dried tree saps as the other gifts. Researchers have discovered that frankincense and myrrh have medicinal properties.
Frankincense has an active ingredient that can relieve arthritis pain, and it was used in the ancient world for other medicinal purposes, including digestive trouble. Myrrh also has medicinal uses, such as the dressing of wounds, and even today it shows up in certain products preventing or treating gum disease.
In other words, the Wise Men were offering to the divine Child all their most advanced medical technologies. What a fitting conclusion to the original star trek!
With this charming gesture, the Magi indicated their desire to speak the divine Child’s language, by humbly confessing their limited vocabulary.
Still, only three words are needed to say, “I love you.”