Tag Archives: Christ

The first Christmas gift

Nativity scene icon



At Christmas we have the wonderful custom of giving gifts to others. But the first Christmas gift came from God himself, who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son  to dwell amongst us and redeem us by his death on the Cross. In this meditation we consider:

  • The Gospel passage of St Luke narrating the birth of Christ in Bethlehem
  • The Prologue of the Gospel of St John telling us who the Child born in Bethlehem is
  • The many benefits that flow from the Incarnation of God in Jesus
  • How we can show our gratitude for God’s Gift by welcoming Christ into our life, speaking to him in prayer, doing promptly what he asks of us, giving ourselves to him through those around us and sharing the Gift with others by bringing them to Christ

Who were the magi?

One question many people ask is, “Who were the magi who went to Bethlehem to offer homage and gifts to the Christ child?”, an event we celebrate on the feast of Epiphany. I answered the question in a column in the Catholic Weekly last year and thought you might be interested in it.

Who were the magi?

My daughter and son attended World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne and came back saying they had visited the tomb of the three wise men in the Cathedral there. Frankly, this sounded far-fetched. What do we know about the three kings, or magi, that came to adore Our Lord?

As you mention, these men are known commonly by three quite different names:  magi, wise men, and kings.

What do we know about them? First of all, that they existed and that they did go from the East to adore the Christ child. St Matthew records the event: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him’” (Mt 2:1-2).

These men were obviously not of the Jewish people and yet they were mysteriously moved to travel from a distant land somewhere in the East to worship the newly born king of the Jews.

The Greek version of St Matthew’s Gospel calls them magoi, which we usually render in English as magi, or wise men. The word is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to magicians (cf. Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8), but it more likely refers to a caste of priests among the ancient people known as the Medes. They were credited with having profound religious knowledge, including astrology, whence the name “wise men”.

It seems that after some Magi attached to the court proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia. Thus the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire but they also enjoyed secular powers.

We see this in the prophet Jeremiah’s account of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Jeremiah calls Nergal-sharezer, one of the “princes” who served the king, the “Rabmag”, or chief of the Magi (cf. Jer 39:3; 13). This was a predominantly civil or military role.

Later, when the Jews were taken to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar made the prophet Daniel the Rab-mag, or “chief of the Magi” (cf. Dan 5:11; 4: 9).

Even though their power ebbed and flowed in the following centuries, at the time of Christ there was a Magi priesthood in Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylon. So it is likely that the Magi who came to worship Christ were from one of these nations. The Fathers of the Church tell us that they came variously from Babylon, Persia and Aribia.

Although the Magi are sometimes referred to as the three kings, there is no historical evidence that they were kings. None of the Fathers of the Church calls them kings, although Tertullian does refer to them in Latin as fere reges, which translates as “almost kings” (cf Adv. Marcion, III, 13).

The fact that the Mass for the feast of Epiphany uses Psalm 72:10, which says, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!”, does not mean that the Church is calling the wise men kings. The psalm, which is clearly messianic, simply expresses very appropriately what the Magi were doing.

How many Magi went to worship Our Lord? St Matthew does not give us the number but it has become traditional in the West to say there were three, undoubtedly based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the East, tradition favours twelve.

Neither does St Matthew give us their names. Nonetheless, in the West from the seventh century on they have been commonly called Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

There is a tradition that after their return home the Magi were baptised by St Thomas and did much to spread the faith, dying as martyrs. The Martyrology, or list of the saints, includes their names in the month of January: St Gaspar on January 1, St Melchior on January 6 and St Balthasar on January 11.

The cathedral of Cologne contains what are claimed to be the remains of the Magi. According to the tradition the remains were discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by St Helena, taken to Milan in the fifth century and finally laid to rest in Cologne in 1163.

Meditation on the joy of Christmas

Christmas is usually a happy time in which good will and joy abound. In this meditation we consider why this is so and why we should be joyful throughout the year, not only at Christmas. After all, in a real sense Christmas is everyday. Click on the link below.

The birth of Christ

We have all read many times that Our Lord was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, and we may have wondered exactly what these are. I post here an answer to some questions on the birth of Christ, which contains a number of very interesting observations from Pope Benedict.

I take advantage of the occasion to wish you and your loved ones a very happy and holy Christmas and a New Year filled with God’s blessings.

I have three questions on the birth of Christ. Why do we say he was born in a stable when the Bible doesn’t make any mention of this? What are swaddling clothes? And what exactly was the sign announced by the angel of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger?

The birth of Christ has a number of extraordinary aspects and your questions touch on some of these. The first is that the Son of God, the King of Kings, was born in such humble surroundings. Surely God in the flesh should have been born in a palace, a castle, or at least a dignified inn. And he should have been laid in a bed or a cot, not in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and God clearly wanted it to be that way in order to teach us something. From the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth we learn, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little” (CCC 526).

And from the poverty of the stable we learn that the possession of material wealth, with all its attending comforts, is not as important as the possession of God. Mary and Joseph, while poor in the material sense, were truly rich in having the very Son of God, the King of Kings, in their family.

Returning to your questions, why does Christian tradition, and even the Catechism, say that “Jesus was born in a humble stable” (CCC 525) when nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any explicit mention of it? Indeed, St Matthew limits himself to saying that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” and, significantly, when he tells of the arrival of the magi he says that “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Mt 2:1, 10). The reference to a house can be explained by the possibility that after the birth in a stable, Mary and Joseph were finally able to find a house in which they lived at least until the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem forty days after his birth. St Luke doesn’t mention a stable either but he does say that after Jesus’ birth Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths “and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Since a manger is a feeding trough for animals it has always been assumed that Jesus was born in some sort of stable.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives, comments on the significance of the manger: “The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God” (p. 68). We might add that the name Bethlehem means precisely “house of bread”.

But why do we associate the birth of Christ with the actual presence of animals, in particular an ox and an ass? Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledging that the Gospel makes no mention of animals, writes: “But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Is 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (ibid., p. 69).

And what are swaddling cloths? In ancient times, as often seen in icons of the nativity scene, the newborn child was customarily wrapped round and round with a narrow band of cloth like a mummy. It was thought this would help the limbs to grow straight. Pope Benedict comments: “The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim… The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar” (ibid., p. 68). The swaddling cloths can be seen too as a reference to Christ’s kingship and his descent from King Solomon, the son of King David. Solomon, in the book of Wisdom, writes: “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure” (Wis 7:4-6).

Finally, why did the angel say to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). Certainly a baby lying in a manger would be a sign, since this was most uncommon. But probably, since the angel mentioned the swaddling cloths specifically, this too must have been part of the sign.

So there is much symbolism and much to be learned from these simple aspects of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.