(probably from hearing "We Three Kings of Orient Are" by John H. Hopkins,
and wondering what kind of idiot would take myrrh to the birth of a king.)
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume,
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
Ben H. Swett
Pease Air Force Base, NH
I half awoke from deep sleep because my stomach muscles were contracting and relaxing as though I were bowing repeatedly. What is this? ... Oh, I'm swaying back and forth. Why? What am I doing? ... Riding. I'm riding a camel, swaying to counteract the motion of the saddle as the camel walks.
Go with it. What happens next?
Ah! White night ... cool white light all around me and above me ... black shadows, like shadows in moonlight ... and other riders, ahead of me. I know them. They are my friends. ... and the stars ... I know them, too.
What am I thinking?
How many nights, how many, many nights have I watched these same familiar stars trace their courses through the heavens? And how many times have I hoped to see that which I now behold? ... but saw it not ... not for the birth of my son ... nor any king ... not for battles ... nor harvests ... never. Never have the heavens shown such a sign as this, to me or my brethren.
What king might this be, who merits such power? For what majesty would the impassive heavens create a star? And such a star! Even Melchior, for all his age and wisdom, has never seen such a thing.
Even now he rouses from his dozing in the saddle to peer again at the beacon we follow ... how it lights his face! Whiter than the moon, and more radiant.
Ah ... he looks at me ... his question is still not answered. He still does not understand why I do what I must do ... and perhaps he never shall.
Do not wonder, good Melchior ... you, more than father to me ... if I am wrong, if the child we seek is not the king I believe him to be ... then I alone will pay for the folly of my gift. Your gold will be accepted, as always ... the symbol of wealth, of power, of the best that earth has to offer. You are safe in your gift, my friend ... far safer than I ...
And you, Kaspar ... I know the vial of frankincense rides lightly between your sash and your tunic, and I also believe the king we seek must be priest to his people, must bring to them Truth and the spirit of Light. I too would have carried the token of priesthood, were it not for all the old writings, all the many stories and traditions that foretell the coming of a prince who will suffer and die for his people ... for all people ... and then continue to serve ... the one who will be high king and priest and prophet forever ...
I simply cannot believe any king would receive such a sign to herald his birth, were he less than this one foretold. I have seen other signs, and other kings, and I know ... I almost know ... this must be him of whom it is said: "He will be King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace."
So ... now we near the end of our journey ... and if a child be born of Herod, or any prince of this people, it will be the end of my journey ... for how could they let one live who brings the symbol of death to the place of birth? Myrrh, the embalmers' balsam, they must consider a curse on the infant.
And yet ... and yet ... if the child be humbly born, as the ancient scrolls foretell ... then perhaps ... perhaps that which I have seen in the stars is true, and the time of the writings is at hand.
Gently! Gently, my long-legged brother, gently. Don't trip over shadows of rocks along the road. I know you are tired. You have but little farther to go. You will soon be at peace with your stall and your hay, and ...
I too shall be at peace ... at peace from my wondering ... for lo, even
now the white walls of Jerusalem shine like a city of dreams upon the farthest
by Kay Bowe
Albany, New York
Thursday, December 16, 1965
"Out of the Orient they came ariding.
Three noble kings of humble heart and mind;
They came to see the Blessed Lord of Heaven
Descend to earth, to be a child.
Precious gifts of gold and myrrh and incense,
Bringing God the gifts which God has made,
Low the kings in homage bowing
At the feet of Mary laid."
This old Portuguese carol recalls to us the most renowned journey of all time -- a journey made by three very different men into the unknown to find and worship the One unknown.
We take the epoch journey for granted now, a fascinating part of our common understanding of events surrounding our Lord's birth. Yet there is no concrete, historical data on the pilgrimage other than St. Matthew's account of what the famous travelers did at the birth of Christ:
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod," the Saint says, "behold Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him...' And when they saw the Child they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."
That visit has become so well known that today even the smallest child can identify the Magi. The men are no fragment of folklore but Gospel fact. Yet the fringe data encircling their unique visit is a patchwork of guessing, legend and tradition. Our natural reaction is to wonder about these men. Who were they, really? From where did they come? What became of them after the great incident?
The answers go far back into antiquity, to a priestly caste called Magi. The name means "wise." The Magi originated in Media (the place we call Persia) and supplied priests to the other Oriental countries. Because they were the learned of the people, they enjoyed extraordinary importance. They were closely associated with the reigning monarchs and no major action took place without their being consulted. St. Matthew mentions the term "Magi" without explanation because it was so well known.
The Magi were experts in the science of astrology, a knowledge closely tied to their solidly rooted yearning for a Messiah. Generation after generation of Magi had been taught by the prophets to watch the sky for a great star that would arise to announce the coming of salvation to the world. And they had been taught that when such a star had outshone all the others, they who followed it would find Him who was to redeem mankind.
Two thousand years ago it came -- the star the Magi never ceased to look for. Those who saw it knew the news it signified. They left their homes, carrying appropriate gifts, and hurried halfway across the world, the star always before them, until they came to Bethlehem and the ordinary limestone cave wherein reigned the newborn Boy.
But where did the Magi come from? No one knows. Scripture says nothing more than "from the East." That could mean they came from Arabia or Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan or India. Even from Babylon, the place where some scholars claim the three travelers joined forces to begin their pilgrimage.
Three travelers? Their number, also, is speculative. Again, the Gospels nowhere tell that they numbered three. The Christians in the Orient had a tradition of twelve Magi. But early Christian art is no consistent witness. A painting in the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus shows two Magi; one in the Lateran Museum three; and in the Kircher Museum a vase pictures eight Magi. Most historians agree that it was the 6th century before Christianity put the number at "three." Presumably, the number was based on the three gifts.
Further investigation showed the number "three" tied to a widespread belief that the Magi of the Christmas story represented all humanity in its three great races. Certainly the Bible seems to indicate this: "Let the great ones come forth from Egypt. Let Ethiopia stretch out her arms to God." And our finest artists sustained the belief by portraying one Magi as a member of the black race.
Ironically, these men destined for fame, reverence and the approbation of the Church lacked any distinctive character until the 7th century when some of the Fathers of the Church -- Bede for one -- gave them names and personalities and assigned their gifts symbolic meaning. Here is what St. Bede wrote in the year 735:
"The first was called Melchior. He was an old man, with white hair and a long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his King. The second, Caspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was middle-aged and called Balthasar. The myrrh he held in his hand prefigured the death of the son of Man.
But no Father's writing holds the Magi to have been "kings." They first were associated with kings when Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian, linked them with the kings of the Psalms: "The kings of Tharsis and of the Isles shall offer gifts; and the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring tributes."
Later, the Church applied this text to the Magi in the liturgy for Epiphany; and gradually, from being likened to kings, the Magi became "kings" in the minds of the people. So they have remained. But this no more proves that they were kings than it traces their journey to Tharsis.
The general feeling is that when their mission was completed -- their coming served a purpose in the Divine Plan, commemorating the gift of faith in the God-made-Man -- the Magi returned to their homelands. There is a tradition that they were later visited by St. Thomas the Apostle, who after instructing them in the faith, baptized them. He also consecrated them bishops to implant the faith in their countries. Toward the end of their lives, the star of Bethlehem is said to have once again appeared to the Magi and reunited them. They are believed to have died martyrs.
The Cathedral of Cologne, Germany, houses what are claimed to be their relics, which were brought to Constantinople by St. Helena in the 3rd century and sometime later transferred to Milan. When that city was pillaged and set on fire in 1162, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa sent the relics to Cologne for safe-keeping.
A Papal Bull dated 1327 suggests -- it does not prove -- the authenticity of the Magi relics. The Bull was issued to further the building of a cathedral in Cologne worthy to house the "sainted Kings." Today their shrine in that cathedral is the principle "sight" in Cologne.
The Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem may be only dimly perceived as human beings. But the spiritual aspects of their great undertaking are as pertinent for the 20th century as for the time of the Nativity. Here, in the ancient wisdom of the three mysterious travelers lies the essence of Christmas and the mainspring of all life -- God is with us.