Every good Christian knows the story of the Nativity. It starts with Mary being visited by the archangel Gabriel (a feast we celebrate way back on March 25th called The Annunciation) and ends with the Adoration of the Magi on Epiphany (January 6th). Just how much do we know about these Magi? There are numerous traditions, but strictly speaking the Bible only mentions them in one chapter, Matthew 2. It does not mention where they were from, how many of them there were, or what happened to them after escaping King Herod, though it does support the idea that they arrived when Jesus was 2 years old. Tradition fills in the other details.
The term “magi” comes from the Greek word μάγος which means “magician” but was also the term used for Zoroastrian priests, who were renown for their study of the stars. Western tradition gives them names: Caspar, an Indian who offered frankincense; Melchior, a Persian and the eldest of the group who brought gold; and Balthazar, the Arab who brought myrrh. The three gifts also have meaning, with gold representing Christ the King, frankincense representing Christ the Divine, and myrrh representing Christ the Man. Of course, why stop at only three magi? The Eastern Orthodox church includes twelve!
These details and others aside, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus as God, as shown at the visitation of the Magi, as well as at the Baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at the wedding of Cana. But back in Jesus’ time, this was not a time for celebration or reflection. After the magi left Bethlehem by a different route, an angel told Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. When Herod realized the magi would not be returning to tell him where to find the infant king, he slew all the boys in and around Bethlehem that were 2-years-old and under. It wasn’t until Herod died that the holy family returned. This part of the Nativity narrative is too often left out, but remains a haunting melody in Coventry Carol, a lullaby to the innocents slain.
Though the wise men could see that Herod’s intentions were evil, I do not think that they suspected just how far he would go to kill a potential rival, even a child. It is a sobering reminder that even our best plans can have unintended consequences for others.