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The Magi
Question from Julie Ulicki on 7/26/2006:

How did the tomb of the Magi come to be in Cologne, Germany? Where were their relics held previous to Germany? Was it Italy? Were the Magi all from Persia or from Europe, Persia & Africa? If they were from 3 different countries, how do we know the relics are authentic? After visiting the Christ Child doesn't the bible say that they went their seperate ways back to their homelands to avoid Herod? So how could the relics be authenic? Thanks for any insight you can offer to this mystery. Very curious,:) Julie Ulicki

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 7/29/2006:

The shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne cathedral is said to contain the bones of the Three Kings, also known as the Three Wise Men or Magi. It is a large gilded sarcophagus dating from the 13th century; it has the distinction of being one of, if not the largest reliquary in the western world.

According to most reliable sources, the remains of the Magi where taken from Milan (where they had been transferred in the 5th century) by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and given to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald von Dassel in 1164. To provide a suitable setting for the relics, the city fathers and Church leaders began construction on the Cologne cathedral in 1248. Ultimately, the cathedral took 632 years to complete. The significance of the relics to city, the Coat of Arms of Cologne contains three crowns to symbolize the Three Kings. As for the relics themselves, a scientific examination of the shrine in 1864 indicated the remains may have actually dated to the 1st century A.D.

Unfortunately, nothing is known with certainty about the Wise Men from the East after their visit to the Holy Family. This is not surprising as little is known about them in general. It is surmised that they were probably Medes from the clan of Magus, from ancient Babylon (modern Iraq) and gifted astronomers and astrologers. The Magi made their presence known to King Herod (r. 37-4 B.C.) before offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Holy Child. Warned in a dream, they returned to their own country by a different route to avoid King Herod, whom they suspected of evil intentions.

In the 6th century the tradition arose that the Magi were Three Kings, even though it is not certain exactly how many there were, nor was there any particular reason to believe that they were kings (they were not called such by the Fathers of the Church, for example). Their names — Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior — were attributed to them in the 8th century.

The meaning of this journey was expressed by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the Cologne Seminary in 2005: Why did the Magi set off from afar to go to Bethlehem? The answer has to do with the mystery of the "star" which they saw "in the East" and which they recognized as the star of the "King of the Jews," that is to say, the sign of the birth of the Messiah (cf. Matthew 2:2). So their journey was inspired by a powerful hope, strengthened and guided by the star, which led them toward the King of the Jews, toward the kingship of God himself. The Magi set out because of a deep desire which prompted them to leave everything and begin a journey. 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… When the Magi came to Bethlehem, "going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him" (Matthew 2:11). Here at last was the long-awaited moment -- their encounter with Jesus. "Going into the house": this house in some sense represents the Church. In order to find the Savior, one has to enter the house, which is the Church... "They fell down and worshipped him ... and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11-12). Here is the culmination of the whole journey: encounter becomes adoration; it blossoms into an act of faith and love which acknowledges in Jesus, born of Mary, the Son of God made man.


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