The adoration of Jesus by the wise men from the East is part of the Nativity celebration in the Orthodox Church.l Whatever the actual historical circumstances of the event—and Orthodox tradition takes them quite literally—the spiritual and theological significance of the coming of the kings with their gifts of paramount importance.
We have already seen how the Church emphasizes the fact that the entire order of nature participates in the announcement of Christ’s birth, thus revealing itself as God’s creation. For, as the troparion of the feast proclaims, “those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star” to adore Jesus as Lord.
The riddles of the soothsayers
And the diviner Balaam are now fulfilled.
For a star has dawned from Jacob,
Leading the Magi, Persian kings bringing gifts,
To the Sun of Glory.
The error of Persia has ceased,
For the stargazers, kings of. the East,
Bring gifts to Christ the King of all at His birth:
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Bless Him, O children, and praise Him, O priests,
Exalt Him, O people, throughout the ages.2
The coming of the wise men also bears witness to the fact that Jesus has come as King and Lord for all people, and not only the Jews. In the persons of the Persian kings the Church sees all the peoples of the earth and all the kingdoms of men.
The daughter of Babylon
Once led David’s children captive from Zion,
Whom she had taken with the sword.
But now she sends her own children,
The Magi bearing gifts,
To beg the Daughter of David in whom God came to dwell.
Therefore let us raise up the song:
Let the whole creation bless the Lord,
And exalt Him above all forever.3
The Magi, kings of Persia,
Knew that You, the Heavenly King,
Were truly born on earth.
They came to Bethlehem
Led by the light of a star,
And offered their chosen gifts:
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Falling before You they worshipped,
For they saw You who are timeless
Lying as a babe in the cave.4
Earth spreads out its wide spaces
And receives the Creator,
As He receives glory from angels
And the star from the heavens,
Gifts from the Magi
And recognition from the whole world.5
The gifts of the Magi are of particular significance. They are interpreted symbolically in the liturgy of the feast. The gift of gold is taken as the sign that Jesus is the king of Israel, of the entire universe, and of the kingdom of God to come. This is a crucial part of the Christmas story in the gospels. It caused Herod to kill all the “male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men” (Mt 2:16).
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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern My people Israel.'” (Mt 2:1-6)
The gift of frankincense is taken by the liturgy to signify the fact that Jesus is God, since incense is for worship, and only God may be worshipped.
And the gift of myrrh is for the Lord Jesus who has come to die as the perfect sacrifice for the people. For the dead were anointed with myrrh, as Jesus Himself was anointed, according to the scriptures, at the time of His death (In 19:39-40).
In the gifts of the Magi, therefore, are contained all the mysteries of Christ’s coming. They point to the purpose of His appearance on earth. He is the royal king, the Son of David, whose kingdom will have no end. He is the victim, the Lamb of God, who by His death takes away the sins of the world. And He is God Himself, the divine Son of the Father: “Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven . . .” as the Nicene Creed declares.
The contemplation of the wise men and their gifts is an integral and lasting part of the Church’s celebration of the Lord’s Winter Pascha.
The kings, the first fruits of the gentiles,
Bring You gifts at Your birth in Bethlehem
From a mother who knew no travail.
With myrrh they point to Your death,
With gold, to Your royal power,
With frankincense to the preeminence of Your divinity.6
When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,
Magi coming from the East
Worshipped God made man.
And eagerly opening their treasures,
They offered Him precious gifts:
Refined gold, as to the King of the ages;
Frankincense, as to the God of all;
Myrrh they offered to the Immortal One
As one three days dead.
Come all nations, let us worship Him
Who was born to save our souls.7
~Adapted from Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season
1 In the Christian West the festival of the Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas and centers on the adoration of the Magi. In the East, the Epiphany feast centers on Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.
2 Compline of the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 24.
3 Matins of the feast of the Nativity.
4 Compline of the Feast of the Nativity.
5 Compline of the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity. December 24.
6 Compline of the final day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 24.
7 Compline of the feast of the Nativity.