Reliquary of the Three Kings,
Designed and executed by Nicholas of Verdun (1130–1205),
silver, gold and enamelled champlevé decoration,
Executed circa 1180
© Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany
The visit of the Magi
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
After the Gospel, following a long-established custom of the Church, the deacon or cantor may proclaim the movable feasts of the current year, in the following form:
Know, dear brothers and sisters, that,
as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ,
so by leave of God’s mercy
we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection,
who is our Saviour.
On the twenty-second day of February will fall Ash Wednesday,
and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.
On the ninth day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day,
the Paschal feast of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the eighteenth day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the twenty-eighth day of the same month, the feast of Pentecost.
On the eleventh day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
On the third day of December, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to whom is honour and glory for ever and ever.
Reflection on the reliquary
We are invited to become part of the story of the Epiphany of the Lord: to accompany the wise men and to participate in the manifestation (epiphany) of Jesus in Bethlehem. It is a beautiful story filled with the drama of the Magi following a star, traveling at night, discovering Jesus, offering gold, frankincense and myrrh, worshipping him etc…
The way Matthew is telling the story accentuates some key learnings about Jesus. The wise men came from the East, which shows that Jesus came for everyone. He was Jewish, yes, but he also came for non-Jewish people, and therefore should be worshipped by all nations and peoples. Matthew isn’t telling us about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus in the stable, but goes straight to making his point that foreigners from the East came to worship Christ. Today’s gospel never mentions the number of magi, but we traditionally assume that they were 3 because of the three separate types of gifts they brought.
Our illustration shows the Reliquary of the Three Kings, at Cologne Cathedral. It is believed to contain the bones of the three Magi. They were originally kept in Constantinople but brought to Milan in an oxcart by Eustorgius I, to whom they were entrusted by Emperor Constantine in 314. Eight hundred years later, in 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the relics and brought them to Cologne, where they have remained ever since. A fascinating journey! One of Europe’s most famous goldsmiths, Nicholas of Verdun (1130–1205), then created this beautiful gilt and enamelled casked around the relics.
The wise men represent all of us who are ready to follow that star in order to find the fullness of life, through Jesus Christ. At the start of the new year, it is an inspirational story prompting us to follow the star throughout 2023….
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