Who are the visitors from the east? If one looks at various translations of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, the visitors are called by several different names. They are Magi. They are astrologers. They are kings. They are wise men. So, it is appropriate to ask, “Who are these guys?”
Each of these designations captures part of the story of the visitors. English translations simply use the Greek word from the New Testament and call the visitors “Magi.” That is, learned men who know how to interpret reality and to prophesy about the future.
The other designations capture facets of the basic notion expressed in the word “Magi” and help us understand more fully the significance of their visit.
If they are astrologers, that means that they have the capacity to read the stars. They tell Herod and his court that they have seen this new star in the heavens, manifesting the birth of a new king. They come to do him homage. Talk of a new king naturally upsets the Herodian court. For the Magi, the star is good news; for the Herodian court, the star is a threat to its power.
Sometimes the visitors are called “kings.” Obviously, Herod would not invite just any group of travelers to his court, so these travelers probably had some kind of a royal pedigree. At the very least, the company is wealthy since they bring precious gifts to the newborn king.
Finally, they are “wise men,” for they know how to read signs in the stars. The term “Magi” then probably catches all the nuances of the visitors’ identities.
Tradition has assumed that there were three Magi because there were three symbolic gifts. Gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for death. The Gospel, however, does not indicate an exact number of Magi. The number is not as important, however, as their origin. They are designated as visitors from the east. They are not Jewish.
The introduction of foreigners early in the Gospel is an indication of the universality of the mission of the child. Jesus comes to save all peoples. Jesus will preach a reign of God open to all people. This Gospel will threaten the Jewish establishment and ultimately flourish in the Roman empire.
The visitors from the east are, indeed, astrologers, kings and wise men. All of these are included in the term “Magi.” More significantly, they come as foreigners to show that God’s reign is open to all people. Such a kingdom threatens the power of rulers like Herod, the chief priests and even the Romans. Our feast this week of the Epiphany, as a manifestation of God, shows that the foreigners understood the meaning of the star and the prophecy and came to worship the newborn king. Jesus is the king for all ages and all peoples.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.