The Right Coast

January 07, 2004
Epiphany Sunday
By Tom Smith

Last Sunday was Epiphany Sunday, the day on which the RC Church traditionally celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. (The history of the feast is complex.) Here is a good article on the astronomical aspect of the Star of Bethlehem.

Our pastor, Fr. Jerry O'Donnell at St. Luke's Church in El Cajon, well known, and deservedly so, as an excellent homilist, opined that the names of the "three kings" were medieval legend merely. However, there is an interesting book by British travel writer William Dalrymple, In Xanadu, an amusing account of his retracing of Marco Polo's route to China. While in Iran, Dalrymple tracked down Polo's story that the town of Saveh was the origin of the three Magi, whom Polo refers to by the traditional names of Jaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. It may be the source of the medieval legend was Zoroastrian tradition preserved as late as the 1200's.

Magi was the name of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, not kings, but astronomers, astrologers and alchemist/physicians. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are traditional Zoroastrian temple offerings, with no precedent in the old testament. Their meaning differs from the interpretation in the Western church. Myrrh in particular does not "tell a tale of gathering gloom," as the carol has it, but was a healing unction used by Zoroastrian physicians. Interestingly, the town of Saveh was a leading center of astronomy/astrology circa 6 B.C. (and continued so until Ghenghis Kahn burned it), and thus is a plausible place for the magi to have set out from.

Fr. Jerry had a good joke on Sunday. Two Jehovah's Witnesses called on George, a life long Catholic. George wasn't really interested, but invited the two young elders in for a glass of water. He sat down with them in the living room, and the two witnesses looked at George and each other nervously, but remained silent. Finally, George asked them if anything were wrong. One of the witnesses said, "Well, it's just that we've been at this quite a while, but we've never got this far before."