Wise worshipers

Daily Reading for January 7

The mysterious “wise men” from the East caught popular Christian fancy earlier and more often then did Luke’s rather pedestrian shepherds-visitors to Bethlehem. In the Protoevangelium of James (second century) only magi come to pay homage at the Bethlehem cave—an interesting mixture of Matthew and Luke. In the Roman catacombs the magi made their pictorial debut a good two centuries before the shepherds, who belatedly appear in the fourth century in Sts. Peter and Marcellinus as subsidiary to the magi. If interest in relics is taken as a gauge, there is simply no contest between the magi and the shepherds. Indeed, the corporeal relics of the magi traveled on a grander scale than their original owners, to the point that in the twentieth century the relics were still traveling and even going back to their earlier home “by another route.” We are told that the relics of the magi were brought from Persia to Constantinople in 490 by the Emperor Zeno. Relics (the same or others) appeared much later in Milan, and from there they went to Cologne in 1162 as part of the booty dispersed by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who had ravaged Italy. The magi’s remains were none the worse for travel, apparently, for the report speaks of still incorrupt bodies. Today these relics remain in Cologne in a magnificently enameled shrine, although in 1903 the cardinal of Cologne sent some of the relics back to Milan as a gift to the cardinal of that city. . . .

We may smile at the anachronisms in [medieval] descriptions, but this imaginative reflection on the magi is not too far from Matthew’s own intent. In the persons of the magi Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah.

From The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke by Raymond E. Brown (Image Books, 1979).

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