What do the Magi bring to the Christmas story?


In the mid-1960s a Roman Catholic cardinal and a priest who was a scripture scholar found themselves seated at the same table at a dinner party. The cardinal immediately put forth his grievance. “You know, Father, there are some scripture scholars these days who are saying we don’t know how many Magi there were.”

“I’m not one of them,” replied the scholar.

“I’m glad to hear that . . .” The cardinal did not have a chance to finish,

“There were six.” The scholar opened the palm of his hand and shrugged his shoulders in a “what can I tell you” gesture.


“Six,” blustered the cardinal. “How do you figure six?”

“Well, in the reliquary at Cologne there are the heads of three wise men and in the reliquary at Milan there are the heads of three wise men. Three plus three equal six.”

The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s gospel account. In Christian imagination the Magi have ranged from two to a whole cohort. But in most Nativity art, from earliest times to the present, there are three. It seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers. Can all those crib sets be wrong?

The question of numbers may seem to be trivia reserved for dining with clerics, but the conversation definitely heats up when someone suggests that the number was zero. Many scholars content that the story of the Magi is legendary—it has theological importance but no basis in history.


I’m not concerned with the scarcity of historical data but with the abundance of poetry and story. Where the historian legitimately equivocates, the poet and storyteller legitimately expound. One historian adjusts his glasses and notes the Magi have no names. A storyteller in response takes another tack.

“Names! Names! Of course, no names are given in Matthew,” the storyteller throws up her hands in exasperation. “If Matthew gave their names, the vicious descendants of Herod would know who they were and be able to trace and slaughter their children and their children’s children. No, their names were kept secret for centuries until it was safe. I can tell you now that they were called Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

Make your own Magi

What does the word Magi suggest? Philologists vacillate among alternatives—deceivers, magicians, astrologers, or philosophers. The storyteller only sees options. “I think I will make them magicians frustrated by their own magic, searching for the one person for whom words and gestures are not tricks.”

“No, wait,” says another storyteller. “They have come to find a king. Then kings they too must be. Kings acknowledging the King. Surely, that is the meaning of it all.”

The Magi arrive from the East, but there is no mention of their mode of transportation. The cultural historian investigates the travel habits of the ancient world. The storyteller suddenly sees horses, Arabian horses of exquisite beauty. Or camels—desert ships sailing on moonlit sands. Of course, these bearers of Magi bearing gifts will talk to each other. They have complaints and dreams, too; and they will not be left unaffected by the baby and his mother. After all, have they not borne the burden of the gifts? Do they, too, not have hearts fit for worship?

Part of this is just plain fun for the storyteller and entertainment for the story listener. But, depending upon the storyteller and the ambition of the story, part of it is a faith-inspired enterprise. The Magi become symbolic carriers of Christian perceptions, vehicles of Christian insights.

The original story in Matthew is the touchstone text. It is a tale steeped in irony, laden with symbols, and rich in theological associations. However, the popular Christian tradition never felt unduly tied to Matthews’ text. The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection.

This fact does not devalue the Magi stories. It places them in their proper perspective. They do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew or a re-expression of divine revelation. They try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives. They try to make good on the promise of Isaiah that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone” (Isa. 9:1). The Magi stories and poems illumine shrouded areas, areas where the pains and promises of life are mixed together.

In Matthew’s story the Magi came primarily to worship; in subsequent tradition they came to talk. So let’s hear what they’ve had to say over the years.

Once upon a time

One legend has it that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man, Balthazar in his middle years, and Melchior an old man. When they reached the cave in Bethlehem, they went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man with whom he was quickly at home. They spoke together of memory and gratitude. They middle-aged Balthazar encountered a teacher of his own years. They talked passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise.

The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a newborn child but had met someone of his own years. They gathered their gifts in their arms and entered together for a second time. In a manger on a bed of straw was a child 12 days old.

The message of Christ talks to every stage of life. The old hear the call to integrity and wisdom, the middle-aged to generativity and responsibility, and the young to identity and intimacy. This revelation accompanies us on our journey through life. We marvel at its richness and adaptability. To find Christ at any stage in our lives is to find ourselves. Yet no matter where we are in our lives, we are still children of God.

Another important point to remember is that the Magi are searchers. They are looking for the Christ Child, but they do not have exact directions and cannot travel by day. A star leads them, a tiny point in a night sky. They are manipulated by Herod and become unwitting accomplices in a horrible slaughter. They rejoice at their find and present their gifts worshipfully, but they leave quickly and return home by another route. Darkness and danger are more a part of their lives than joy and worship.

Their situation is often contrasted with the shepherds. The shepherds do not have to deal with a mute star. They are blessed with a talkative angel. This angel gives them exact directions to the birthplace of the child. They will not have to consult devious kings. They are also told the identity of the child and serenaded with a song about the meaning of his birth. Once they arrive, everything is exactly as they were told. They skip off to tell everyone, and all are astonished at what they hear. Angelic revelation, joy, and proclamation tell the shepherds’ story.

We may yearn to enter into the Christmas mystery with the simplicity and directness of a shepherd, but often struggling Magi are our real representatives. The Magi are symbols of the restless human spirit, of our unseeing quests, and, more often than not, of our unlikely finds. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” is a classic tale of endless restlessness and the cost of finding what you search for:

            A cold coming we had of it,
            Just the worst time of the year
            For a journey, and such a long journey:
            The ways deep and the weather sharp,
            The very dead of winter.
            And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
            Lying down in the melting snow.
            There were times we regretted
            The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
            And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
            Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
            And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
            And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
            And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
            And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
            A hard time we had of it.
            At the end we preferred to travel all night,
            Sleeping in snatches,
            With the voices singing in our ears, saying
            That this was all folly.
            Then at down we came down to a temperate valley,
            Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
            With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
            And three trees on the low sky.
            And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
            Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
            Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
            And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
            But there was no information, and so we continued
            And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
            Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
            All this was a long time ago, I remember,
            And I would do it again, but set down
            This set down
            This: were we led all that way for
            Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
            We had evidence and no doubt I had seen birth and death,
            But had thought they were different; this Birth was
            Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
            We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
            But no longer at east here, in the old dispensation,
            With an alien people clutching their gods.
            I should be glad of another death.
Travel expenses

Eliot’s poem articulates the Christian sensitivity that birth and death interlock. The hardness of the search is matched by the hardness of the birth. We may romanticize this process of change, symbolized by birth and death, until we have undergone it. Then the most appropriate words are: “I should be glad of another death.”

Following Christ costs. This is a gospel theme that is stressed and re-stressed. Jesus’ parables of the buried treasure and the pearl of great price suggest that finding and selling go together, “going he sold all that he had . . .” To follow Jesus one must leave occupation and family. This is not so much a literal leaving as a symbolic detachment. Choosing a new absolute point of reference entails letting go of previous absolutes. To walk a new path we must leave the old path.

Yet this painful process always stuns us. We are always taken by surprise that this newborn child wants whatever gifts we have. On the positive side, this means redirecting our energies toward whatever is coming to birth in him. On the negative side, it means letting go of other gods.

The way we live is not grounded in the truth. But it is the way we are comfortable with, the way our family and friends live. Quite simply, it is the way we are. But now we have seen the birth; we can no longer be comfortable in this old dispensation. The deeper problem is we cannot be comfortable in the new dispensation, either. The voices keep singing in our ears, “That this was all folly.” Like Eliot’s Magi, our dilemma is that we know the old will not work, yet we lack the courage to risk the new.

Another wise man who has a hard time of it is Artaban in Henry Van Dyke’s tale The Story of the Other Wise Man. Although it moves toward a climactic ending that can be seen coming from quite a distance, it carries a genuine Christian sensitivity.

Artaban is a Mede and a follower of Zoroaster. He has seen the sign in the sky and tries to persuade his friends to join Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar, and him in the search for the newborn King of the Jews. He is unsuccessful, but the old Abgarus encourages him with realistic wisdom:

“My son, it may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light and then he who follows it will have only a long pilgrimage and an empty search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst.”

Artaban sets off to join his three fellow Magi and follow the star of their destiny. But he does not arrive at the meeting place in time. On the way he comes across a sick and dying Hebrew. He thinks to himself, “Should I risk the great reward of divine faith for the sake of a single deed of human love? Should I turn aside, if only for moment, from following the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing Hebrew?” He attends to the man with all the skill of a physician. The man recovers, blesses Artaban, and tells him the prophecy of the Bethlehem birth.

When Artaban finally arrives at Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary, and the child have fled to Egypt and his fellow Magi have returned home. He is given lodging by a young mother with a newborn baby. While he is there, Herod’s soldiers descend on the village and begin their slaughter. In order to save one child, Artaban bribes a soldier with a jewel he had hoped to give to the Christ Child.

Artaban decides to continue his search for the newborn King of the Jews. This search takes him throughout the ancient world. Wherever he goes, he attends to the sick and needy. He spends his wealth on all those in need. This search goes on for 33 years and finally leads him to Jerusalem. He has one jewel left.

When Artaban arrives in Jerusalem, he hears that they are going to crucify a man who is called the King of the Jews. He realizes this might be the child of his quest and moves to join the crowd as they push toward Golgatha. But once again his journey is cut short. A group of soldiers is dragging a young girl down the street. She is to be sold into slavery to pay her debts. She begs Artaban to help her. He gives up his last jewel, a pearl of great price, to ransom her.

Suddenly there is an earthquake. A tile shaken from the roof strikes him and falls to the ground. As he lies dying, the girl he has ransomed holds him in her arms. She hears a faint voice. Then the old man’s lips move and he says, “Not so, my Lord. For when saw I thee hungry and fed thee? Or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or imprisoned, and come unto thee? Three and thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.” the journey of Artaban is over.

The obvious theme of this story is that Christ’s presence in human needs goes unrecognized as we search for the historical figure of Jesus. But there is a subtheme that tells the searcher that the search may be its own reward; the struggle may be the goal. Spiritual journeys are struggles to awaken to what is already there, “When did I see you . . .” is the question of darkened consciousness. “As long as you did it . . .” is the expression of enlightenment.

All points meet here

When people attempt to summarize the revelation of Christ, they often talk about reconciliation and communion. Just as Artaban finally comes together with the Savior, so, too, are divisions overcome within people, among people, and between people and the earth and people and God. Communion replaces separation.

Communion and overcoming separation are themes that often appear in stories and poems about the Magi. In W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being,” the Wise Men and the shepherds appear at the manger. Their voices are initially contrasted. The Wise Men talk of hunting high and low, traveling with doubt and the unknown, and finally finding an end to their endless journey at the manger. The shepherds are the opposite. They talk of traveling nowhere, living in uninterrupted routine, and finding a beginning to their journey at the manger. They represent different types of people and different dimensions in each person.

For both of these types, the birth of Christ is a refusal and blessing. The Wise Men desire to have no past and the shepherds no future. These desires are refused: instead they are both asked to bless their overriding drives—the Magi their impatience and the shepherds their laziness. Then they bless each other’s sin and exchange places. The Wise Men give away their conceit and the shepherds their fear. Their final words are said together.

            Released by Love from isolating wrong,
            Let us for love unite our various song,
            Each with his gift according to his kind
            Bringing the child his body and mind.

The journey ends in the fullness of human life in which Magi motion is combined with shepherd rest. Only the gifts of the Magi and the shepherds together make possible the gifts individually. The Magi’s journey ends at the manger, but what they really find are the shepherds, the lost partners of their one-sided passion.

Bow down your head

Self-discovery of the brand that the Magi and shepherds experienced is always puzzling and painful. The revelation that we are meant to be in communion with one another is not something a conscience absorbed with its own superiority readily accepts. This is true for camels as well as people, as Leslie Norris’ poem “The Camels, The Kings’ Camels” makes clear:

            The Camels, the Kings’ Camels, Haie-aie!
            Saddles of polished leather, stained red and purple,
            Pommels inlaid with ivory and beaten gold,
            Bridles of silk embroidery, worked with flowers.
            The Camels, the Kings’ Camels!
            We are groomed with silver combs,
            We are washed with perfumes.
            The grain of richest Africa is fed to us,
            Our dishes are of silver.
            Like cloth-of-gold glisten our sleek pelts.
            Of all camels, we alone carry the Kings!
            Do you wonder that we are proud?
            That our hooded eyes are contemptuous?
            As we sail past the tented villages
            They beat their copper gongs after us.
            “The windswift, the desert racers, see them!
            Faster than gazelles, faster than hounds,
            Haie-aie! The Camels, the Kings’ Camels!”
            The sand drifts in puffs behind us,
            The glinting quartz, the fine, hard grit.
            Do you wonder we look down our noses?
            Do you wonder we flare our superior nostrils?
            All night we have run under the moon,
            Without effort, breathing lightly,
            Smooth as a breeze over the desert floor,
            One white star our compass.
            We have come to no palace, no place
            Of towers and minarets and the calling of servants,
            But a poor stable in a poor town.
            So why are we bending our crested necks?
            Why are our heads bowed
            And our eyes closed meekly?
            Why are we outside this hovel,
            Humbly and awkwardly kneeling?
            How is it we know the world is changed?

Langston Hughes plays upon this same theme of communion and unity in “Carol of the Brown King.”

            Of the three Wise Men
            Who came to the King,
            One was a brown man,
            So they sing.
            Of the three Wise Men
            Who followed the star
            One was a brown king
            From afar.
            They brought fine gifts
            Of spices and gold
            In jeweled boxes
            Of beauty untold.
            Unto His humble
            Manger they came
            And bowed their heads
            In Jesus’ name.
            Three Wise Men
            One dark like me—
            Part of His

In Christ, God has united Godself to human nature. This communion signifies that all people are united with one another—they participate in the same reality. The differences between people are not as great as the common ground they find in Christ. To be “Part of His/Nativity” is to know yourself as reborn through Christ to a life of inclusive relationships.

Give me more than truth

Many years ago G. K.  Chesterton made a Christmas meal out of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Scientism. Eddy told the press that at Christmas she did not give presents in any gross, material sense. Rather she meditated on Truth and Purity until all her friends were better for it. Chesterton accused her of being anti-Christian. The whole point of the Incarnation was to embody goodwill. “The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization,” Chesterton said.

Chesterton goes on to argue that Christ himself was a Christmas present, a real embodiment of divine love. Gift-giving is the way the invisible becomes visible, the way the hidden heart is made known, the way spirit risks itself in substantiation.

In Christian tradition the gifts of the Wise Men have become symbols of the perfect gifts. What makes them perfect is their ability to bear and communicate spirit. On the one hand, the gifts show that the Magi know who the child is. The gold symbolizes his kingly humanity, the frankincense his divinity, and the myrrh (an ointment used in embalming) his redemptive death. They are not fooled by the outer trappings. Their gifts show they discern his inner reality.

On the other hand, poets have interpreted the gifts as symbols of the Magi’s inner dispositions. Gold means that they offer their virtues, frankincense shows them to be people of prayer, and myrrh represents their willingness to sacrifice. The outer gifts tell of their inner reality. What is hidden is revealed. Their gifts are perfect because they allow communication between two interiors—the hearts of the Magi reach the heart of the child. The perfect gift is one that carries one person into another person.

Storytellers have often tried to communicate this insight. The Little Drummer Boy is poor. He has nothing of value to give the Christ Child. So he plays his drum and the seemingly worthless boom, boom, boom becomes priceless. When the gift has no value in the eyes of the world, it may become priceless in the eyes of faith—eyes sensitive to the spiritual meeting of people.

No story brings this truth home more poignantly than O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” In it, Jim and Della, a poor couple, each have a proud possession. Della has beautiful long hair and Jim has a watch. As Christmas nears, Della cuts her hair, sells it, and buys Jim a platinum fob chain for his watch. When she gives it to him, Jim reveals that he has sold his watch to buy her a set of pure tortoiseshell combs for her hair.

This story ends twice, both times with the same ironic message: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest.” They are wise because they have both received something absolutely useless on the “level of flesh” and absolutely priceless on the “level of spirit.” Paradoxically, they have each received the perfect gift: both of them know and are known, love and are loved. They have received the gift of the Magi.

Listen to strangers

Matthew’s story of the Magi is built on a many-layered irony. The gentile Magi, through their own calculations, know about the birth of the King of the Jews. The Jewish leaders who have kept the prophecy of the birth in their scriptures are ignorant of it. These two groups need each other. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of both creation and covenant. He is the child of earth, meant for all people. But he is a Jew, a child of the covenant. He is a universal savior born of a particular people.

This message is the background for darker confrontations. In the story, the Magi come to Herod with an outrageous request: they want him, the current King of the Jews, to help them find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. They have no gifts for Herod—a breach of ancient etiquette. Is it any wonder that Herod and with him all of Jerusalem are troubled?

King Herod knows he must yield to the child of the star. So he plays his role—on the outside—but inside he is filled with murderous schemes. This resistance and hypocrisy, profiled so effectively in Herod, is an attitude that we all might very well take were a stranger to tell us our own truth, a truth that threatens the way we live.

In “Epiphany in Doubt” I restate these dynamics by addressing the Herod in all of us:

            Magi only journey at night
            like the guarded secrets of dreams
            and, at morning, always arrive from the East,
            the rising sun at their backs,
            haloing them in light.
            You will have to shade your eyes
            to watch them,
            step by step,
            approach you
            with their request.
            They are not wise in usual ways.
            They cannot make a chair,
            their soups are regrettable.
            It is conjunctions
            that interest them.
            Heaven shakes, earth quakes.
            As above, so below.
            A star moves across the sky
            and they are in the saddle
            convinced an earth child
            has yanked a string.
            They come from a country of kites.
            They also puzzle prophecies,
            living in perpetual pregnancy,
            awaiting the births of the predicted.
            They unroll ancient parchments
            to find new babies,
            then read the wrinkles of the newborn
            as testimonies of the past promises.
            They are not your average observers.
            That is why they have come to you—why they have come to us all.
            Your replacement has been born.
            They need your help
            to tell them
            they can find the child.
            Lost in higher logic,
            They will not see you blanch
            or notice you are troubled.
            They want to teach you the lost art of homage,
            how freeing it is to be prostrate before promise.
            They are the strangers
            who have come to tell you
            the truth
            you have forgotten.
            Do not try to trick them,
            coaxing from their enthusiasm
            murderous information.
            It will not work.
            Wise Men always go home
            by another route.
            You will end
            by slaughtering hope
            and you will not see
            the fleeing child, your child,
            reach for their gifts.

The poem counsels against responding to the Magi as Herod did. The Magi are not unwelcomed nor is their news a threat. The strangers are an opportunity to reclaim our identity. They remind us of the heart of our tradition and encourage us to rediscover our own prophecies. To heed them is to be reunited with the promises of God and shown the correct use of our gifts—gifts we have forgotten we had.

Each age reads scripture out of its own concerns. This is doubly true of the imaginative explorations of the Magi story.

We live in a time in which our rational mind is so powerful it could trigger our extinction. No wonder the Magi become warnings to us to recover the child.

We live in a time in which we are sensitive to tasks that are built into the structure of aging. No wonder the Magi represent the stages of life.

We live in a time between times, a time of glacial shifts of consciousness. No wonder the Magi’s search is hard and their find both less and more than what they expected.

We live in a time that stresses the need for personal integration and global solidarity. No wonder the Magi symbolize a world of communion deeper than surface separations.

We live in a time in which our preoccupation with materialism threatens to shrivel our sense of spirit. No wonder the Magi know that matter is the secret communication of spirit.

We live in a time of universal dialogue, when all traditions are learning who they are by learning who the stranger is. No wonder the Magi come from the East to bring us the news of what is being born in our midst.

Image: Inbal Malca on Unsplash

About the author

John Shea

John Shea is the author of numerous books, including The Legend of the Bells and Other Stories (ACTA, 1996) and Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998). This article originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Add comment