I have always been fascinated by the Wise Men, or Magi, or Astrologers as they are often called. What they are not called in the Scriptures is Kings. That is an understandable error which I will explain in a bit. Most scholars believe that they are from Persia, which is modern day Iran. The religion of Persia of that time was Zoroastrianism, which means that these men, however many there were (the Bible does not tell us how many, but it does mention three gifts), were pagans. Believing in astrology, they watched the heavens carefully for signs of important events on earth.
And they see a star—a new star that had never been seen before. What could this mean? Somehow they knew that it signaled that a new king had been born. And based on that, they set out on a great journey, a great pilgrimage. But why? Kings are born every day, especially back then when every little region had a king. Their journey was over 1,000 miles, over desert and mountains. Such a journey would have taken three months or more, each way. So they are leaving their families, whatever jobs they had, and friends to travel to see a newborn king. Why? What on earth would lead them to make such a radical move? We are not told.
The willingness of the Magi to set out on such a quest is an expression of the desire of even the pagan world for a savior. In the Sistine Chapel, in addition to the great murals on the ceiling itself, are portraits of the Old Testament prophets who foretold the coming of Christ and portraits of the pagan Sybils (oracles such as the one at Delphi) which also anticipated a great savior of the world. The light of the Star of Bethlehem shining out into the world shows that Christ came, not just for the Jews, but for all people.
The three gifts that the Magi bring—gold, frankincense and myrrh—are highly symbolic gifts, each of which expresses who this new born child, the King of the Jews would be. Gold represents royalty. He is a King. Incense symbolizes divinity. He is God. And then there is the strangest gift anyone ever brought to a child. If you showed up with it at a baby shower you would be driven out of the house, and no one would ever speak to you again. Myrrh is a strong-smelling ointment that was used to anoint a dead body, to cover up the odor of decay. It makes it clear that this child’s death would be significant. And was it ever.
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates that the Star of Bethlehem shone out into the pagan world, calling to all to come to Christ to find salvation. This is a celebration for almost all of us, unless we are descendants of the Jewish people. We are the Gentiles, who have come to know that Jesus is the Savior of the World. This is our story.