The Three Wise Men are not just a fairy tale

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in a painting in the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany – despite my parish priest telling us it is just the First Friday of the month (true) and that the Epiphany will be celebrated this Sunday instead. So I was glad to read from the Rome Reports News Agency the Holy Father’s own short homily about the Three Wise Men, preached in 2005 at the World Youth Day in Cologne. The Pope had also prayed at the tomb of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral, where tradition has it that their bones were laid.

People who are keen on facts and documentation alone can be dismissive of tradition: the ancient and venerable oral memory of events that have taken place in the distant past which is handed down through the centuries. We Catholics have a reverence for tradition as one of the pillars supporting our faith. So we don’t think the Three Wise Men are just a happy fairy tale to provide colourful parts in children’s Nativity plays; they are a beautiful part of this tradition and it annoys me when people say “Where’s the proof?”

Anyway, in his homily the Pope didn’t question the story; he concentrated on the purpose of the Wise Men’s journey and how it reflects our Christian journey too. “It was as though they had always been waiting for that star. It was as if the journey had always been a part of their destiny, and was finally about to begin” he said; it reminds us that our faith is full of mystery and that a divine destiny awaits us as we fulfil (stumblingly) the purpose of our lives. Poets like Yeats and T S Eliot have been inspired by the journey of the Magi and artists’ depictions of the event are one of the staples of Christmas cards.

As to facts: in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna you can see a wonderful mosaic of the Three Wise Men in traditional Persian dress and carrying their gifts, along with their names above: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These mosaics were completed ca.565 AD – over 1500 years ago. OK; this was still a few hundred years after the birth of Christ as narrated in the Gospels – but “tradition has it that…”