We know the story of the three wise men following a bright star to see the baby Jesus. There’s even a Christmas carol that is quite popular during Mass on the feast of the Epiphany, “We Three Kings.” So, who were these guys, exactly, and what is their role in the birth of Jesus, the manifestation of God as man? According to Scripture, Matthew Chapter 2:1, “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” According to catholicstraightanswers.com, in the days of King Herod, magi were part of a priestly caste from Persia where astrology was prominent. The Magi explained they were in search of “the newborn king of the Jews” and saw his star, following it to pay him homage” (Mt 2:3).

The news disturbed King Herod, who asked the Magi to return with news of the baby’s location, in order also “do him homage” (Mt. 2:8). But that is not how it played out. The Magi followed the star to where it stopped, “and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11).

According to catholiceducation.org, the Magi, identified in the seventh century as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament when Balaam prophesied about the coming Messiah marked by a star. Matthew draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied, “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob,” (Nm 24:17). Isaiah also references gifts from afar, “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Is 60:6).

The image of the Magi as kings might also come from Psalm 72, “A Prayer for the King,” speaks of the Gentiles paying homage to the Messiah, “May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba off gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him” (Ps 72:10-11), according to catholiceducation.org.

The website also noted that, “St. Matthew recorded that the Magi brought three gifts, each also having a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; frankincense, the gift for a priest; and myrrh – a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die.”

While we cannot bring such lavish gifts to the infant Jesus, we can continue to adore him through the feast of Epiphany with our prayers sand good works.