Luke does not record the coming of the Wise Men -- but Matthew says that ". . . there came Magi 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 have come to worship him.' But when King Herod heard this, he was troubled and so was all Jerusalem with him." (Matthew 2: 1-3)
The fact that these Wise Men recognized the star is intimately associated with the very nature of the star itself; that is, the miraculous phenomenon is recognized as the sign of the new- born king.
These Magi were truly strangers and completely unaware of the political conditions in Jerusalem, for as soon as they entered the city, they began to ask questions.
It is not stated how many Magi there were, though tradition mentions anywhere from two to twelve, popularly three, nor is it said that they were kings. No names were given to them until around the ninth century A.D., when they became designated by the traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and then it was said that Caspar, called "White Lord with the Diamond," was an aged white-bearded king of Tarsus, the land of merchants, and he it was who brought the gold; Melchior, a middle-aged king from Arabia, called "Bright Lord with the Diamond," brought the Lord frankincense; and Balthazar, a dark young king from Sheba, who was called "Treasure Lord with the Ruby," brought myrrh to the Holy Infant.
The word Magi is in some versions translated "wise men," and in others "astrologer," but both seem to be taking liberties with the original word from the Greek Testament.
The Magi came from the "East," but the term applied to them is of Persian origin, particularly associated with Zoroaster and his teaching. The priestly caste called the Magi, were a powerful group in Persia until the 8th century A.D. The word "magu" means "priest or magician," while the word "maga" means gift, and it seems to have been the mission of these men to share their wise gifts with the newborn king, symbolic of more heavenly gifts to come.
When the Wise Men passed through Jerusalem looking for the new King, they obviously were unfamiliar with the area, for they assumed the event would be known. When Herod heard of them through his numerous and efficient "secret agents," he sent for the Magi to come to him in order to learn what this was all about. On hearing their story he called all the chief priests and advisors to look up the old prophecy, and it was easy to identify Bethlehem as the location designated for the birthplace of the Messiah, from the quotation in Chapter 5 of Micah, "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little 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 of old, from ancient days and he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord . . . for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth."
Herod became alarmed at the possibility of a threat to his throne through the birth of this great one, so pretending to have an interest in worshipping the Child, he inquired of the wise men what sign they had seen concerning the King to be born, and they answered, "We saw an extraordinarily large star shining among the stars of heaven which so outshined all the other stars that they became not visible, and we knew thereby that a great king was born in Israel and therefore we are come to worship him." Herod requested that when they had found the child they would return and tell him where he could find him, that he might also go and worship.
So the Wise Men, or Initiate-Kings, went forth on their way to Bethlehem, still following the star, until it came to rest over the place where the child lay. They rejoiced with great joy, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him. Then they brought out their treasures and offered to the babe their costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh -- again fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah 60:6 - "..... the young camels of Midian and Ephah and all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord."
So they had found their king -- not in a royal palace, but in this lowly cot, not in a position of high honor, but in a place of obscurity, even then having no place of his own whereon to lay his head.
Since the virgin is also a symbol of purity and chastity, her adoration is common to every world religion. Isis in Egypt and Ceres in Greece are familiar examples. Around the virgin who becomes a divine mother centers the important work of the spiritual Mysteries of each country. Isis had said: "The fruit that I bear is the sun." The pre-Christian Madonna is represented as bearing in her arms the Sun Child, born at the Winter Solstice, to bring new life to the earth and all mankind.
Their gifts were customary ones to offer high beings in those days, for they were rare and costly. It was said that Herod's palace was often enwreathed with the fumes of incense, but this was not enough to make fragrant the lives of those in his court.
Gold symbolizes spirit; frankincense (vapors) the body; and myrhh, bitter but fragrant, the soul. The gold must have been most welcome to Mary and Joseph on the eve of their departure into a strange land. Then the lady Mary took one of his swaddling clothes in which the infant had been wrapped and gave it to them instead of a blessing, which they received from her as a most noble present. And at the same time there appeared to them an angel in the form of the same star which had been their guide along the journey, the light of which they followed till they returned again unto their own country.
Being warned in a dream concerning Herod's actual intentions, the Magi hastened to return by another way to their native lands, avoiding the palace of Herod.
Being questioned upon their return home they produced the swaddling cloth which Mary had given them and made a feast of rejoicing. And according to the custom of their country they made a fire and worshipped it, and then cast the swaddling cloth into the fire which took it and kept it. But when the fire was put out they took forth the swaddling cloth, which was still unhurt as much as if the fire had not touched it. They were much amazed that the fire could not burn nor consume it and then they took the cloth and with the greatest respect laid it up among their treasures.
The story of gifts does not end there, for legend has it that the Lord Jesus himself bestowed upon the giver of gold charity and spiritual riches; upon the giver of incense perfect faith; and upon the giver of myrrh truth and meekness.
When Herod perceived that he had been mocked by the Wise Men who had not returned in that direction, he became very angry and commanded that certain men go forth and kill all the male children that were in Bethlehem and the surrounding territory from two years of age and under. This allowed a safe margin, based on calculations from the reports of the Magi concerning the star, and reports of the chief priests, to make sure his feared rival would not escape him.
It is believed that Jesus was actually one year old at this time, for the Wise Men would require that amount of time for so great a journey.