My dear friends in Christ and St. Norbert,
The mystery of divine light begun at the Christmas Midnight Mass is here brought to completion, for the message delivered directly to simple Jewish shepherds is today revealed through a star to the educated Magi from the East. These Magi were a sacred caste originating in the ancient empire of the Medes, a place overlapping with what is now Armenia and Iran. Despite many persecutions, these priests still held much sway in the Parthian Empire at the time of Christ’s birth. It is a journey of some thousand miles from Persia to Jerusalem, necessitating well over a year in preparations and travel, which helps explain Herod’s later slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger.
Although the Scriptures do not give us a number of these Magi who came to adore the newborn king, the number of their gifts has given rise to the Latin tradition that they were three: Caspar, which means “treasurer”; Melchior, which means “city of the king”; and Balthazar, which means “God protect the king.” It is the Englishman Venerable Bede in the 8th century who tell us that Melchior was the oldest of the three, with a long white beard, while Balthazar was black with a heavy beard—which probably accounts for their typical iconographic representations.
These were men accustomed to look to the heavens for wisdom and truth. And so it only stands to reason that God revealed to them the birth of His Son by the miraculous appearance of a star. As St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross said, “Because God is truth and because He wants to be found by those who seek Him with their whole hearts, sooner or later the star had to appear to show these wise men the way to truth.”
That they truly sought not just a king but also God is evident both by their bowing down in adoration and that they did so before such a small child, for in the ancient world a young king is a weak king, at risk of being assassinated by someone more powerful, and showing loyalty too soon to such a monarch was an excellent way of inscribing one’s own name on the death list. If they were looking for an earthly king but found a poor family in a small hamlet, they ought to have left crestfallen and in haste.
But Scripture attests that they again saw the star, which had led them all the way to Israel but then disappeared and which now wended its way six miles south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. This is less distance than from here to the old abbey, which means the star’s movement in the sky must have been very noticeable. But when they saw the star once more in the sky, our translation says, “They were overjoyed.” This is a pathetic understatement. The Latin says, Gavísi sunt gaúdio magno valde—“They rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy.” This is a Hebrew manner of speaking, but it conveys by repetition such an excess of joy, such a thrill of happiness, that no merely human king could ever justify it.
It is said that these three Magi met up again to commemorate Christ’s birth in 54 A.D., and that they then died in extreme old age: Melchior on January 1st; Balthazar on January 6th; and Caspar on January 11th, 55 A.D. Their feast day is celebrated in the Church on January 6th, which incidentally is why our Fr. Miguel, whose birthday is January 6th, was baptized Gaspar, though maybe more appropriately Balthazar. St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, discovered their relics in Persia and translated them to Constantinople. Then in 344, St. Eustorgius translated them to his see in Milan. Finally, in 1164 Frederick Barbarossa brought them to Cologne, where they rest to this day.
As the first gentiles to whom the incarnation of the Son of God was revealed, the Magi represent us, seekers for truth and mercy from all lands and peoples, just as the shepherds represented the Jews who awaited the fulfillment of God’s promises made to their ancestors. There was an honesty in their quest for God that was not shackled by the errors of paganism, and so God, Who is never outdone in generosity, abundantly rewarded their use of the gift He had given them. Their philosophy, fallible as it was, believed in a heavenly counterpart for each man that grew alongside the earthly man, and at death they were united. But here God gave them heaven on earth already united in a single man Who was not to be separated even by death, but by His death joined all other men into the one Mystical Body of Christ.
If we wish to claim them as our spiritual forebears, we too must long for truth, seek it in all the signs God presents to us throughout our day, much less dramatic than a miraculous star but with no less ability to guide us to Christ.
In the footsteps of the Magi, we too have our gifts to bring. As their gold signified Christ’s kingship; their frankincense, His divinity; and their myrrh, His saving death—so, too, our gold is wisdom pleasing in His sight; our incense, the fervor of our prayers; and our myrrh, the mortification of our flesh in order to restrain ourselves from sin. In other words, God asks of us no other gift but ourselves. As St. Augustine says, “You ask what you might offer to God? Offer yourself! What does God expect from you, except yourself?”
By such an offering we are brought into adoring and loving union with the Christ Child Whom we seek, and this is for us the greatest joy. Every sign that here and now we are to embrace this cross, offer this prayer, speak this word of edification is a star saying to us, “He is nigh.” And like the holy Magi, may we too rejoice with an exceedingly great joy to know God Himself delights in our offering of everything we are, for He knows it is but a hint of that gift He is waiting to give us, His own very self for all eternity in heaven.