Those three so called “Wise Men” are intriguing characters. Modern (western) biblical criticism has written them off too easily as mythical figures. St Mathew is said to have devised the characters to emphasise the sovereign personality of Jesus. Elsewhere in the world, especially among Christians in Persia and towards China, the Magi remain important figures emphasising a point of contact, between the peoples of the Far East and the historical Jesus.
The reality is that these travellers were probably Zoroastrian Priests from the region of Iraq (Chaldea). Like Jewish people, this ancient religion also believed in a single God who had created the universe. Zoroastrian concepts of the mystery of human life were linked to astrology and the movement of the planets. This is why they were following a star. In Zoroastrian regions the succeeding monarch could come from any of the clergy who were treated as princes. This explains the combined reputation, of their being not just wise men but Kings.
There are many legends surrounding their lives. It is claimed that in the 12th century their remains were taken from Constantinople via Milan and eventually to Cologne. In the cathedral there is an ornate sarcophagus sufficient to hold three bodies that is venerated to this day.
Whatever we may think of the Three Kings as historical characters, there is much to contemplate about the meaning of the gospel story. What kind of “wise men” stride up to the palace of the dangerous and illegitimate king Herod in Jerusalem demanding to know where is the child who is born “King of the Jews”? Surely they would have had the sense to establish whether a child had been born at the palace and consider the consequences. Nevertheless by the same token as foreign dignitaries of some status, having crossed from Persia into Roman territories they would have been duty bound to verify their presence with the local governing authority.
St Matthew says that after their visit, the “Wise Men” returned home “by a different way”. Returning by a different way is sometimes a process which brings people unexpectedly back to Christianity. Whether there are memories from childhood that are strangely stirred or a sudden realisation that somehow a person has been called to a fresh understanding, people are often surprised to realise that the Catholic faith is the place where they have always belonged and it is time to come home.
The church can feel at once both familiar yet different at the same time, and in a good way! The truth is that probably the only thing that has actually changed is not the faith of the church but the person doing the returning. I suspect that this is true of the “wise men”. They did not set off on their journey as wise men but were recognised after their return home. Something or someone had changed their lives. There was no longer any need to make long foreign journeys. Everything they needed to know about heaven was shining out to the world from a manger!
God Bless Fr Kevin