Yesterday was Epiphany, and I had one (well, what passes for one for me). Epiphany is, of course, the feast day celebrating the appearance of the Wise Men in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. It also marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. (Shakespeare, anyone? What you will.)
While the feast day actually commemorates two other events as well—Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and the peformance of his first miracle at the wedding at Cana—it is most associated with the appearance of the Wise Men.
In Spain and Latin America, Epiphany is celebrated as El Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, when children waken to find presents stuffed in shoes or baskets they’d left out the night before.
Many traditions associated with the Wise Men do not appear in the brief account in Matthew but are accretions from later times. That there are three of them is one example: Matthew states no number. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Wise Men number twelve. The number three no doubt derives from Matthew’s mention of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Another later addition was their characterization as Magi, or scholars or astronomers or men interested in magical things (precisely what Magi are is a bit vague). That detail derives from the Greek Magoi, used in the Greek-written gospel, which has been translated as “wise men” but which is also associated in Herodotus with a priestly caste among the Medes that, perhaps, survived to Jesus’ time.
That the three visitors were kings took hold only in the third century. That detail made a neat counterpoint to the adoration of the shepherds (both low and high came to worship the baby), made it possible for generations of artists to paint their patrons’ features into the scene (surcharge if they’re portrayed as one of the three, no doubt), and, conveniently, fulfilled a prophecy.
A few hundred years later, the kings gained names, which eventually developed into the familiar Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. They later were assigned different ages, ranging from the youthful Balthasar to the geezer Gaspar.
Still later, the three kings were seen as representing distinct regions: Balthasar became a king of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. In this, they signified the recognition of Jesus’ divinity by Gentiles. Eventually, they all moved. Balthasar came to represent Africa, Melchior Asia, and Gaspar Europe. Thus, the three Magi came from each region of the then known world.
Once he relocated to Africa, Balthasar became black, though that tradition apparently needed time to take hold. Several Renaissance paintings I’ve checked out—by Giotto (from 1304–1306 and 1320), Fra Angelico (1430s) Botticelli (1475), Filippino Lippi (1480 and 1496), and Ghirlandaio (1488), among others—do not reflect this idea. A Bosch adoration from 1485 to 1500 does, however, as do a Geertjen tot Sint Jens (c. 1490), a Durer (1504), and others. The earliest example I saw was a Mantegna from 1461.
There is considerable debate, too, on when exactly they showed up. If, as tradition has it, they came from Babylon (another accretion), they would have needed months to travel by camel (as presumed). Some biblical scholars say they arrived as much as a year or two after Jesus’ birth. (Good thing they came before he was a teenager. He might have been holed up in his room texting.)
While all these traditions make for steady work for biblical scholars, impressive art, and generations of delighted Hispanic children, the bare story is quite simple—and delivers (my realization) a profound message for each of us.
Some (number unknown) wise men (profession uncertain) came (in some manner) from the east (somewhere), led by a star (origin unexplained), and saw the baby (at some age) Jesus, to whom they gave gifts in homage.
That is, in the presence of the God—or Universal Spirit, or Inward Light, or Divine Spark, or Oversoul, or Whatever You Want to Call It—within each of us, they gave things they valued.
Which raises a question, of course. (Don't messages always do that?) What gift do we each choose to give to honor that which is divine in everyone else?
Words © 2012 AtHome Pilgrim.
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