THE ANCIENT LEGEND OF THE THREE KINGS
In the medieval cathedral of St. Lazare in the French town of Autun, there are two stone carvings in high relief that relate the story of the Three Kings and their adoration of the Infant Jesus. In the first, the monarchs are representing their gifts to the Holy Child, who sits upon the Virgin’s lap. As the eldest of the kings offers his gift, the second monarch prepares to do the same, while the third tips his crown in a gesture of respect to the newbornKing of Kings. In the second relief, the kings are lying in bed, covered by a single blanket. An angel of the Lord has appeared, warning them that Herod-Judea’s king- has determined to kill the Savior.
Both are charming scenes, filled with an innocent faith that undoubtedly inspired the men who build and decorated the 12th-century cathedral. The sculptures also reflect the enormous popular interest in the tale of the Three Kings, for these are but two of literally thousands of representations of the Adoration that exist in Christian art. Indeed, the story retains its compelling force today. For many years at Christmas time American television has presented the legend of the little Drummer Boy, and during the same season there are productions of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 20th-century opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Both works revolve around the Three Kings.
Biblical sanction for the story is brief. In all, the story takes up only 12 short paragraphs in the Gospel according to Saint Mathew, Chapter 2. This accounts tells of wise men from the East who see a star in the firmament announcing the birth of a Savior. The Magi (from a Persian word translated as “wise men” in the King James version of the Bible) follow the star from their homelands to Palestine, and in Jerusalem they inquire of Herod where the Holy Infant might be found. Herod consult his own priests, then directs the Wise Men to Bethlehem, telling them to bring back word of the Child so that he might go and worship Him. In Bethlehem they find Jesus and present Him with three gifts: gold, frankincese, and myrrh. Then, the Wise Men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the implication being that Herod would harm the Christ Child if they revealed His location. Therefore the Wise Men “departed into their own country another way.”
There are othe references in the Bible-indirect ones, to be sure- which might explain how the Wise Men were transformed into kings. In one reference, from the Old Testament Book of Isaah, Chapter 60, the coming of the Savior is foretold, and the prophet writes: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…..all they….shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.”
Here, then, in both the Old Testament and the New, lies the true significance of the Magi’s journey. Whatever their origins, these kings are clearly foreigners-Gentiles. Their trek, as the well-known carol describes it, across “field and fountain, moor and mountain” and their subsequent Adoration reveal that Jesus came to Earth not merely to save the Jews but to offer salvation to all mankind; that henceforth God’s love would shine equally on all people. The fact that the supplicant were kings- or at least learned and powerful men in their own lands-dovetails neatly with the account of the Adoration by the simple shepherds. Together the incidents show that all men, rich or poor, owe equal allegiance to God and His law.
But what of the nature of the Christmas Star? Scholars have long speculated about it, some advancing theories that it was either a comet or a nova (an exploding star that flares up before dying out). But as no Middle Eastern observers recorded such an event, a more widely held view is that the star was a subtle sign, such as an unusual conjuction of planets, that only professional stargazers might recognize.
One explanation, accepted by many astronomers, is that shortly before Christ’s birth the planets Jupiter and Saturn passed close to each other three times in the same year (7 B.C.). This triple conjunction, as it is called, took place in Pisces-a constellation believed by astrologers to influence Jewish life. Several months later Mars moved into this same grouping, thus creating a light and configuration that occurs rarely (once in 799 years according to one calculation) and is, at the same time, associated by astrologers with the destiny of the Jews. As the Magi were priest-astrologers who would have observed planetary movements, such a phenomenon might have portended for them the coming of the Messiah.
As the Star of Bethlehem has been a source of scholarly debate, so too has been the meaning of the gifts. All three were valuable, for frankincense and myrrh were rare spices, and gold, then as now, was a precious possession. Thus the gifts were undoubtedly suitable offerings. One belief is that the Magi offered frankincense because its sweet smell would mask the odors of the stable where Christ was born. The scent of the pungent myrrh might drive off the stable vermin. As for gold, it could ease the Holy Family’s poverty and perhaps finance the forthcoming flight into Egypt.
Other traditions apply a more symbolic meaning to the gifts: gold represents Christ’s powr as King; frankincense, His priestly function; and myrrh, an unguent, His role as a healer. Myrrh, which is derived from a thorny tree, is also seen as a presentiment of Christ’s agony and death, for the spice was well known as an embalming agent. This view is expressed in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” in which the myrrh-bearing monarch sings: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom;/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
By the eighth century the anonymous Wise Men of Saint Mathew’s Gospel had acquired, through legendary accretion, not only names but physical characteristics. The oldest about 60, was Mechior, who presented Christ with the gold. Next came Balthasar, a monarch in his middle years. And finally there was Gaspar, a youth barely out of his teens. They represented not only three stages in men’s lives but also different backgrounds. Mechior was said to be from Arabia, Gaspar from tarsus in southern Turkey, and Balthasar from Ethiopia. In their disparate backgrounds (Balthasar is often represented as a black), all of mankind is symbolized as paying homage to the Christ Child.
Legend also has it that after leaving Bethlehem, the Magin returned to their native lands where, many years later, Saint Thomas the Apostle visited each of the, converted them to Christianity, then ordained them into the priesthood.
In death as in life, the Magi have traveled far. There is a belief that they were buried in a common grave, and in the fourth century Saint Helena, mothe rof Constantine the Great, transferred their remains to the basilica of St. Sophia in Constantinopole. During the First Crusade (1095-1099) the relics were taken to Milan, and in 11264 to the cathedral of Cologne, where they now rest in a shrine. For eight centuries devout Christians have been making pilgrimages to this shrine.
But do they rest? Perhaps not. After all, they began the custom of gift giving in honor of Christ’s birth, a tradition taken over by Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, in northern lands. But in southern countries, particularly Spain, Italy, and Latin America, gift giving remains the Magi’s domain. On the 12th day after Christmas-Three Kings Day-Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior are said to travel abroad, leaving gifts for children in commemoration of that day long ago, when they knelt and placed their tributes at the Christ Child’s feet.