One of the most recent and thorough studies of the nativity of Jesus was done by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as the third volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” series. This slim volume gives great insight and clarity to these questions and many others surrounding the birth of Christ.
Discerning exactly who the Wise Men, or Magi, were is difficult. In a general sense, they were in charge of a body of religious and philosophical knowledge. Evidence also suggests that these men were involved in astronomy, and from their observations, drew conclusions about what would happen in the world. Pope Benedict looks beyond these basic facts about the Magi to look into their hearts. He proposes that they’re truly wise: searching for the highest truth and clinging only to it.
Tradition about the Magi also holds that one was old, one was middle age and one was younger. Furthermore, tradition passes down that one was from Africa, one from Asia and one from Europe. This symbolizes a new beginning with Christ, that all people from all places and time will come to Him seeking truth.
Why the Magi came to find the infant Jesus is foretold in two key prophecies in the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob blessed his son Judah with the words, “The scepter shall never depart from Judah, or the mace from between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and he receives the people’s obedience” (Genesis 49:10). This visit from the Magi, representatives of the nations, fulfilled these prophetic words.
Another prophecy, this one from a non-Jew, foreshadows the star that arose with the birth of the Christ child. Balaam, hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel, is forced by God to bless Israel, prophesying at one point, “…a star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17). This prophecy foretells that a new star will mark the rise of the Messiah in Israel.
This star was what the Magi were looking for and the starting point for their journey. One theory for the star is the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. A similar conjunction is scheduled to take place this year on Dec. 21. Jupiter was the star of the high Babylonian deity, while Saturn a representation of the Jewish people. Why this was the sign they were looking for, we aren’t quite sure. It might have been the prophecy of Balaam that motivated them. Or it might be another text we aren’t aware of. What we do know is that when this sign appeared, the Magi went forth to seek out the Messiah.
This column appeared in a previous issue of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in St. Louis.