January 6, Epiphany, “Magi from the East”

As we slowly recover from the end-of-year festivities, we begin a new period of rejoicing that begins in our churches and ends around the table. Thus on January 6, the Catholics of France are going to celebrate the feast of Epiphany in memory of the visit of the Magi to Jesus Christ. On this occasion, many French people will taste a delicious galette des rois. But how did these travellers, described by Saint Matthew as simple “Magi from the East” (Matthew 2, 1-15), become the Magi of the West?

Let’s go back to the very first mention made in the Bible. Surprisingly, of the four gospels that make up the New Testament, only that of Saint Matthew mentions the presence of “ Magi from the East » asking Herod where to see “the newly born King of the Jews” before handing over to the divine child “gold, frankincense and myrrh ” and of ” return to their country by another route” so that Herod the Great could not know the location of the Messiah and kill him. A situation that pushed the cruel sovereign to commit the terrible massacre of the Saint Innocents. Thus ends the list of information provided by the Gospels as to theidentify of these mysterious travellers. But how did the latter become our famous Magi whose number, skin color, first names are known to us today?

The royal status of the Magi as well as their number of three appear in the writings of the first theologians of the Church. Indeed, in some texts, these sages are described as “almost kings” because of words spoken in the Book of Psalms and understood as prophecies about the birth of Christ, “ The kings of Tarshish and the islands will bring offerings, the kings of Seba and Sheba will bring their tribute » (PS 72(71)-10), as well as in the Book of Isaiah “ Nations will walk to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 12).

The number of the Magi was simply determined according to the three gifts made to Christ, offerings revealing the nature of this child born in a simple stable. Indeed, gold is a gift fit for a king for one whose “royalty is not of this world (John 18-30), when incense refers to the divine nature of infants and myrrh, a substance used during embalming, prefigures and prophesies the Passion.

The names of Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar appear, as for them, in texts of the VIIIth century and proclaim that these magi would have been sovereigns of the kingdoms of Persia, Arabia and India. An argument that sometimes collides with the writings of the Venerable Bede (672-735), an English monk, affirming that the Magi would be representatives of the three known continents at the time of Christ as well as of the different stages of life. of Men in order to prove the universalism of Christianity to the people of the world. Thus Gaspard, a beardless young king with a tanned complexion, became the representative of Asia, Balthazar, dark-skinned and with a full beard, that of Africa and Melchior, with white hair and hair, proof of his great age. , that of Europe.

This iconography built over the first centuries of Christianity and full of symbols was very quickly adopted and reproduced, as evidenced by certain frescoes from the early Christian era in the catacombs of Saint Priscilla in Rome. An artistic representation that ended up being standardized throughout the history of Christianity, fixing until today the current image of our famous “wise men”. A symbol that does not escapemusical adaptation with Sheila’s Les Rois Mages released in 1971 or even in parody through the famous movie eponym of Les Inconnus, released in 2001, which, behind the laughter and the joy, shows the attachment and the curiosity of our civilization and our country to this tradition. A tradition, almost as old as Christ himself, which is firmly anchored in our Judeo-Christian culture as well as in our homes, through the presence in the crib from our homes three santons, three magi from the East.

January 6, Epiphany, “Magi from the East”