SYMBOLISM OF THE MAGI

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Everyone who has heard the Christmas story knows about the three wise men who came from the east. However it does not take much thought to discover that there are several major problems with it. First of all in telling it Matthew (Mat. 2:1-11) does not say they were kings. It comes from Psalm 72:10-11, ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.’ Nor does he mention the ox and the ass but in Isaiah 1:3 we find, ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.’ This association was made not merely from the idea that they formed very natural accessories in an event of which the scene was a stable, although generally the western Church places the Nativity in a stable while the Eastern Church sets it in a grotto.

 

It is also said that there were three wise men but the Bible does not say this; it is entirely traditional, In art and literature they are represented as, Gaspar an old man with a long grey beard and venerable aspect; Melchior, a man of the prime of life, and always given a short beard; and the third, Balthazar, a young, beardless man, often depicted as being of black complexion.

 

Now what is the significance of the three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh? It has been suggested that the gold offered represents kingship, frankincense is a symbol of holiness and righteousness, and myrrh of the suffering and affliction which leads to purification. All of these Christ demonstrated in His life, so must we if we seek to live in Him. For in order to offer spiritual gold at the altar it is necessary first to engage in self-examination and purification so we can come to live in greater holiness and righteousness. The more we do so, the higher will the smoke from the incense of frankincense and myrrh lift ourselves and our prayers upwards to the temple and the altar of God.

 

Finally, let us look at the star. The wise men coming from the east followed the star in the east. Yet if they are travelling from the east how can they be following a star that is in the east? Surely the star would be in the west? It could be argued that Matthew does not mention that they were following the star in the east until after they left Herod in Jerusalem. However this does not make sense, because Jerusalem is north and slightly east of Bethlehem, so the wise men would have been travelling south and a little to the west. They could not possibly have been following a star in the east.

 

Now it could be said that the star relates to some other Biblical text. For example we read in Numbers 24:15-17, ‘Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,.’ Truly a mystical and prophetic vision. But none of these Biblical references come anywhere close to answering what the wise men were following.

 

Some have suggested that the star was a bright comet with a tail, but trying to follow the tail of a comet to lead to a specific place on earth is a bit like trying to find where a rainbow touches the ground. It could be said that they followed a comet until it was directly overhead. However it is an astronomical fact that a comet is never directly overhead. This is because when a comet becomes bright enough to be seen with the naked eye it is either approaching the sun in its orbit or, having passed the sun, is moving away from it. This means that when they are visible they can only be seen relatively low in the sky, either in early evening or early morning.

 

There is, however, a possible explanation that is workable. It is said that the wise men were astrologers. Now fundamental to real astrology (as opposed to the nonsense of weekly or daily horoscopes) is the natal chart. A natal chart is a circular diagram on which relative positions of the sun, moon and planets are charted. To do this one begins with the latitude, longitude, time, day date and year of birth. Then one finds the exact location of the various heavenly bodies for that particular place and time. These are listed in tables which have been used for centuries, (or were until the onset of the digital age), by astronomers, navigators and farmers. Having gathered this information one uses mathematical means to calculate where each celestial body should be indicated on the natal chart, which represents the vault of the heavens.

 

Astrologers then interpret the chart to be able to foresee the potentialities in the life of the person which the natal chart relates to. Now it is quite conceivable that the wise men made what amounts to a reverse calculation. In studying the relative movements of the relative celestial bodies they could predict that a very auspicious birth would occur on a specific date and they would have had an approximate idea of where that birth would occur. Seeing that the birth would be of a king it is doubtless natural that they asked first at the major city of Jerusalem.

 

Now we read in Matthew’s account, ‘Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.’ (Mat. 2:7) So his wise men (or astrologers) also knew that this figurative, ‘star,’ was to appear, but of course they would have been little inclined to acknowledge this potential threat to Herod. It is only after the wise men from the east left Jerusalem that we read, ‘the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ Could this be indicating that they were able to follow more precise calculations they were able to make to the natal chart?

 

The important thing to learn from the magi, who were, after all, wise men, is that we should not forget to check that what we think the Bible says is what it actually does say. Furthermore, we should not always take things we read in the Scriptures in the literal sense. Particularly if we stop, think and carefully examine what seems at first to make little sense we can often make sense out of it, and quite often what we discover provides us with a deeper and more profound spiritual insight. Finally, we should not simply dismiss what appears to be illogical or irrelevant, bearing in mind that the Scriptures contain much spiritual wisdom which we cannot yet but will be able to comprehend when we are prepared and ready to receive such understanding.

 

© Copyright Janet Gentles, Founder and Owner – Paschal Light