The Director's Desk

What the Wise Men Teach Us, Part 1 of 2

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Part One

"When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to adore him." St. Matthew 2:1-2

We have all seen the pictures of the three wise men, riding their camels, following the star and presenting the Child Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Catholic tradition even names the three wise men for us: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

The sacred narrative of the wise men's mysterious arrival leads us to ask three questions:
  • Who were these "wise men"?
  • How did they find Our Lord?
  • What do the they teach us?

The Church fathers taught us that these men were Chaldean philosophers from Babylon, which had an ancient tradition of philosophical study. We see this in the biblical book of the prophet Daniel and therefore we must allow sacred and profane history to be joined together here that we may understand God's orchestration of both to arrive at this climax of human history. In the book of Daniel, we read:

"The king [Nebuchadnezzar] spoke to the master of the eunuchs, that he should bring in some of the children of Israel, and of the king's seed, and of the princes, children in whom there was no blemish, well-favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, acute in knowledge, and instructed in science, and such as might stand in the king's palace, that he might teach them the learning, and tongue of the Chaldeans."

We can see, then, that since ancient times, the Chaldeans were great philosophers in the east and the "wise men" in the Gospels are men of this wisdom-seeking tradition which modern minds are very ignorant of.


In the Old Testament (Numbers 22) , we learn of a wise man, Balaam, a pagan prophet who lived in the East who prophecied of things to come. He said:

"The hearer of the words of God hath said, who knoweth the doctrine of the Highest, and seeth the visions of the Almighty, who falling hath his eyes opened: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel"

Thus, it was known in the east, from ancient times, that a great king would one day rise up in Israel and rule the world. That prophecy was kept in mind by the eastern wise men and they studied to know the time of that appearance, while watching for the rising of that star.

What is worth noting is that they knew of the time, but erred in judging the place of Our Lord's birth. They knew a king was to be born, and where did they seek him? In the king's palace at the royal city--Jerusalem. However, the king there, Herod, knew nothing of any royal child's birth. The Child was not in the royal city, nor was He of the royal household. Herod and the wise men were forced to call the Jewish priests to learn, from other Scriptures, where the Child was to be born. They answer from the prophet Micah:

"But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times."

Thus, though the priests had the Sacred Scriptures and the Mosaic traditions, they and their king were made aware of the Savior's birth by the arrival of Gentile philosophers. Pretty interesting.

It was a day when history's most glorious king, Augustus Caesar, sat in Rome, ruling the world, yet these wise men believed that one greater than Augustus was here. One ancient commentator said this of the wise men:

"They had been taught that this Child was one, in worshipping whom they would certainly secure that salvation which is of God. Neither His age was such as attracts men's flattery; His limbs not robed in purple, His brow not crowned with a diamond, no pompous train, no awful army, no glorious fame of battles, attracted these men to Him from the remotest countries, with such earnestness of supplication. There lay in a manger a Boy, newly born, of infantine size, of pitiable poverty. But in that small Infant lay hid something great, which these men, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had learned not of earth but of heaven."

Now, to recognize the arrival of a new star in the sky, the wise men must have had an exhaustive knowledge of the existing stars, and such a careful watching of the heavens, that they would be able to notice something different, something new. Think about that! Most of us would be lucky to be able to name 10 stars of the innumerable stars that are visible, but the wise men knew the sky so well that they would catch a new star when it appeared. Pretty impressive.

There is much to learn beneath the surface of this narrative. The study of classical Astronomy, assumes the mastery of other studies on which it depends. Astronomy assumes a mastery of Geometry and Arithmetic--which should not be confused with modern classroom course bearing the same names. In classical Mathematics, we find all to be dependent on the masterful use of human Reason, for it is by the reasonable joining and disjoining of axioms and definitions that truths are deduced. This study of Reasoning was itself dependent on the mastery of the study of speech and its parts, which we call classical Grammar. Thus, we can be sure, based on our knowledge of the history of ancient learning, that these wise men were enabled, through their participation in the classical liberal arts tradition to find the Savior of the world. It's also worth noting that the works of Aristotle were preserved by the eastern philosophers after Alexander the Great brought them there in the 4th century BC. They disappeared from Europe and did not come into Catholic use until the time of...St. Thomas Aquinas--but that's another subject. None of this, however, should surprise us, for the study of Philosophy was never considered to be something separate from Religion. In fact, inasmuch as God made made unique by the gift of Reason, it was this study that made man truly human. In the ancient world, "wise men" were almost always religious leaders.

To clarify one thing, the Church fathers, who were themselves masters of the classical liberal arts, and who would qualify as "ancient wise men", worked diligently to destroy the ancient study and practice of Astrology, which sought to predict from celestial events the fates of men. Teachers of these arts in the early Church era pointed to the wise men as proof of the truth of the science of Astrology, but St. John Chrysostom explains that this is not Astrology:

"The object of Astrology is not to learn from the stars the fact of one's birth; but from the hour of their nativity, to forecast the fate of those that are born. These men knew not the time of the nativity to have forecast the future from it, but the converse."

Thus, it is not correct to call these wise men "Astrologers", but it is certainly true to call them "Astronomers", that is, natural philosophers who studied the heavens in the ancient way.
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