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Kings of Tarshish and the Isles

How mysterious are these Magi, who suddenly appear from the East to worship the Christchild and then as suddenly disappear!

The title "magi from the East" indicates that they were members of a priestly caste from Persia (now Iran), scholars interested in astronomy - not just astrology in the later sense. The star that appeared to them was, they were convinced, a sign of great importance. But it was surely not scientific curiosity alone that prompted them to undertake their long journey. As Christ sent angels to summon the shepherds, he also sent the star to invite these worthy savants to pay Him a visit. It must have taken them months to prepare for the trip, and many more to reach the Holy Land - a trek of 1,000-1,500 miles.

Today's gospel tells us all we really know about their arrival, their search, their discovery and worship of Jesus, and their departure by another route as advised in a dream in order to escape bloody-handed Herod.

But who were they and what became of them?

We call them the Wise Men or the Kings, and the number three has become traditional, though not mentioned in the Bible. Were they indeed kings? Only in the eighth century were they definitely referred to as such. What were their names? Various names were assigned to them from the seventh century on, but eventually the three that stuck were Gaspar (in English, Jasper), Melchior and Balthasar. Since the fifteenth century, it has been customary for artists to represent one as a black.

And what happened to them when they arrived back home? Legend says that they were baptized - decades later, of course - by St. Thomas the Apostle; and that they worked diligently to spread faith in Christ. What were claimed to be the relics of these saintly men were brought to Constantinople in the fourth century by the Empress St. Helena. Later they were transferred to Milan, and in 1164 to Cologne, Germany. There they are still enshrined in the great Cologne cathedral.

Despite the haziness of their biographies, one thing is for sure: the Magi were the first gentiles to do honor to the Messiah. In doing so, they set for us later gentile Christians an example of unselfish and wholehearted devotion to the Infant Savior.

-Fr. Robert F. McNamara

Q300: In our Gospel story (Mt 2:1-12), we don’t hear about any “conversion” of the astrologers from “the east” to Judaism. So where is the “Good News” as it relates to them?

The Good News is three-fold today. The foreigners coming to do homage from “the nations,” or “the east,” together with the manifestation of “the glory of the Lord” in Bethlehem, signify the fulfillment of the prophecies in both the First Reading (Is 60:1-6) and the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 72:1-2,7-8,10-13). The third element of the “Good News” is the universal nature of this manifestation. After the Jewish people had awaited the coming of the Messiah for so many centuries, God did not choose to reveal himself just to them. Instead, he revealed himself to both Jews and Gentiles.

This is incredibly Good News for each one of us! St. Paul in the Second Reading (Eph 3:2-6) explains the consequences of this Incarnation even more pointedly: we Gentiles have become co-heirs with the Jews in Christ Jesus; we now share the same covenant promise given to the Jews centuries ago.

So even though we hear of no “conversion” of the magi in the gospel story, pay attention to the significance of their reason for coming and their manner of returning. They “came to Jesus” because a sign pointed to Jesus; they “returned home by a different route” because of another sign leading them away from the evil King Herod. Therein lies a practical message for each of us, whether Jew or Gentile. Many, many signs point the way to Jesus for us, and many other signs point us away from the practical atheism or destructive evil around us. Do we “see” these signs? Do we “respond” to God’s messages and messengers of grace?

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Have we been true disciples – stars or witnesses or “signs” pointing to Jesus Christ to help others “come to Jesus” (CCC #2044)? Most often in our present society we will be called to be “signs of contradiction” just like Jesus (CCC #575), a call to oppose the evil cultural attitudes that favor abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, sexual involvement without marriage, and other destructive situations. Do we need to “change our route” like the Magi, forming our conscience to become more aware of the “occasions of sin” – such as indecent books and movies or TV shows, shameless friends, and the like (CCC #1784)?

Q. 457: There seems to be a lot of Israelite history hidden in these readings today.

The people of Israel had suffered a lot because of their selfish government “leaders,” and after a military defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, they were taken into exile to Babylon. After many years in exile, the prophet Isaiah shares with the people his revelation of a renewal of old blessings, and above all a renewal in spirit. Israel will once again be restored, if they learn their lessons from the failures of the past. If they really rededicate themselves to serving God, then the potential that is available to them can become a reality.

Spiritual darkness once was a reality for Israel, when they relied on leaders who were immoral and unjust, rather than relying on God. Peace and security is only fleeting, as we discover, whenever we ignore the parent-child relationship of dependence that always exists between us and God.

Isaiah foresaw the restoration of Jerusalem as the center of worship for all the nations, not just Israel. His prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. HE is the light that guides all nations to the Truth. HE is the hope of not only Israel, but the entire world. The Gospel (Matthew 2) shows us the first Gentiles coming to Jesus, who is the guiding light. They bring gifts fit for such a king, and worship him as the prophets foresaw. Evil, immoral, and unjust government leadership continued, in the person of King Herod back in the days of the three wise men, and today it continues under different names. But the guiding light that Isaiah prophesied now lives among us forever, always present to us in the Sacraments and always dwelling within us as a result of our Baptism.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The Blessed Virgin Mary makes the Son of God manifest to the first representatives of the gentiles (CCC #724). This Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by these gentiles from the East, who are the first-fruits of “the nations” (CCC #528).