Many children in Miami did not receive the bulk of their presents from Santa on December 25. Throughout Latin America, Spain and in U.S. cities with dense hispanic populations, January 6th is the day when Los Reyes Magos (The Magi) bring gifts to good little boys and girls.
In addition to presents, Reyes traditions include Rosca de Reyes—an oval sweetbread containing a figurine of the infant Jesus. The hidden baby symbolizes the desire to find for the Christ child a safe haven protected from King Herod’s persecution. Colorful parades and lively music round out the festivities.
The holiday marks the adoration of the baby Jesus by the Wise Men. On the Church calendar, this day is called the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord and in 2017, will be celebrated on Sunday, January 8th. The biblical narrative can be found in the Gospel according to Matthew.
Exclusive to Matthew
Each of the four Gospel accounts tells of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All four record the miraculous feeding of 5,000 from five loaves and two fish. All four Gospels document Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his agony in the garden, his passion and death on a cross. All four also tell of the resurrection—the heart of the Christian faith and common ground among all Christian denominations.
But despite their similarities, each Gospel contains particular details and complete stories not found in the other three. And it is these distinctions that help paint a clearer and more complete portrait of Jesus, his message and his mission.
The narrative of the Wise Men is one of them. Very few details are provided concerning these mysterious magi.
The only mention is recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, where they are described as coming from the East. The Bible gives no indication as to their country of origin, but scholars have suggested Media, Persia, Assyria or Babylonia.
The Scriptures also do not reveal how many there were, or their names. Since three gifts are mentioned, tradition has placed their number at three. Some time before 600, tradition had given the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
What is documented, however, is that they followed a star and travelled a great distance to Bethlehem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. The ancients believed that, at the time of a king’s birth, a new star would appear in the night sky.
Upon finding Jesus, they prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, these gifts carry little significance, but to those who heard and read this account at that time, the gifts spoke volumes.
These three gifts
The three gifts were prophetic of Christ’s offices of King, Priest, and Savior:
Gold is a precious metal symbolic of royalty and wealth. In ancient times it was common to give gold as a sign of tribute to a new king.
Frankincense is an aromatic tree resin. Its name comes from incense of Franks since it was reintroduced to Europe by Frankish Crusaders. It was used by Jewish priests in temple rituals. The gift is symbolic of Jesus’ role as eternal High Priest and of his sacrificial offering.
Myrrh is a gum resin used in making ointments and perfumes. It was also used in the embalming of the dead—a symbol of Jesus’ future suffering and death:
“Nicodemus…came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes… They took the body of Jesus and bound it…along with the spices…”—John 19:39-40
Matthew narrates that the first people to recognize Jesus as king of the Jews and adore him are the magi who are from the east—not Jewish. This shows that Jesus’ kingship is not only for Israel, but is universal. Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish prophecy and expectation—the anointed one and heir to King David’s throne. But more than that, he is savior of the entire world.