The Adoration: The Magi

The Adoration of the Magi, detail - Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, by Giotto

The Magi from the East came to Palestine because they were certain that a miraculous event had occurred, the birth of the Messiah: “We saw his star” (Matt 2:2). These men would certainly have come in contact with the Jewish culture and the biblical and popular traditions regarding the Messiah.

The coming of the Magi from the East is described only by Matthew in Chapter 2. The narration can be divided into six scenes, the first three taking place in Jerusalem and the others in Bethlehem of Judea.

The episodes can be summarized as follows:

  • the journey of the Magi and arrival in Jerusalem;
  • Herod learns of the arrival of the Magi;
  • the meeting between the king and the Magi;
  • the immediate departure of the Magi for Bethlehem;
  • the Magi find the child and offer him gifts;
  • the departure of the Magi for their country without Herod’s knowledge.

But who were these Magi who came from the East? Tradition has always identified them as wise men who knew astronomy and were able to read the stars in order to foretell important events in human history.

The Magi possessed higher spiritual powers and their ancient culture derived from that of Arabia and East Africa, which was also their own geographical origin, as we are told by the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and St. Epiphanius of Salamis.

The star that accompanied them reveals to us an important astronomical event that helps us to understand in a historical manner the birth of Jesus. Scientifically, the star the Magi saw and followed was a super nova, i.e., an exploded star at the end of its life, and this would have represented for them a sign that something of great significance for human history had taken place. A number of Church Fathers, including Origen, saw in this the coincidence of a divine act with a natural event, while other Fathers maintained that the star was a symbolic event willed from on high. It is clear in reading the account of the Magi that the star indeed had this symbolic and annunciatory function, since it had accompanied them and indicated to them the route to follow to reach the Grotto.

The light of the star illuminated the path of the Magi and symbolically indicated the way to find Jesus and to recognize him. Once they arrived to the Grotto, the Magi bowed down in a spirit of worship before the child announced as King, who for them had the appearance of a small creature placed in a manger. In front of this scene, the Magi worshipped Christ and venerated him with the gifts worthy of a king that they had brought.

They remained in a state of near-astonishment, and the act of faith that led them to recognize in this child a King is the experience each one of us undergoes when we come to Bethlehem. The gifts brought by the Magi were items typical of Nabataean Arabia, particularly the incense.

The gifts, symbols of the majesty of Jesus, are the fulfillment of the words of the Psalmist: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts” (Ps 72:10). The gift of gold was indicative of the elevated social position and political power of a king. Incense represented the divine dignity of Jesus as a messianic king and priest.

Myrrh, a substance used in the Jewish tradition for the burial of bodies, recalls the death and burial of Christ. The Magi remain figures of great interest in the Christian tradition and the Gospel accounts, venerated and remembered along with their relics, which were first moved to the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan and then taken to Cologne Cathedral in 1164.

The Adoration: The Magi - Gospel 

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