Today is officially the Feast of the Epiphany, but along with most of the Western Church, we celebrated this on Sunday (presumably because nobody comes to Church in the week anymore, or perhaps because someone knew the Magi would be likely to get snowed in on the A32 if we left it any longer).
So, instead we use today to concentrate on the Magi themselves. They are, in fact, canonised as Saints under the names Ss. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – though Christians in other places give them different names, and the Gospel never tells us how many Magi there actually were. In the West, all sorts of other traditions have been attributed to the Magi – such as transforming them into Kings, or speculating that one was from Africa, one from Arabia and one from China – but these are all later developments (or revealed by the Holy Spirit, or completely made up, depending on your point of view).
Saint Balthasar is, apparently, the Patron Saint of epileptics, playing card manufacturers and people who saw things up. Remember him if you ever find yourself in an American horror movie, playing Poker with an epileptic wielding a chainsaw. You will need all the help you can get.
Anyway, back to the Magi. S. Matthew calls them simply Magoi (from which, obviously, we get our English word Magi). The word does refer to the Priestly caste in the Persian Zoroastrastrian religion, but it’s more probable that the Bible uses it in a more general sense, to refer to people who were learned in some faintly esoteric Eastern philosophy.
The NRSV offers “astrologers” as an alternative translation, but that puts us in mind of Russell Grant, which rather spoils the beauty of the image.
There are several interpretations of this (The Golden Legend, as always, lists a few), but the commonly accepted one in the West is that gold symbolises Christ’s kingship, frankincense recognises his divinity and myrrh prefigures his death and burial after the Crucifixion.
The other thing the Gospel account tells us is that pesontes prosekunesan auto. Some folks think this is a reference to prostration, others to kneeling or genuflecting. But the Greek literally means “having fallen down, they worshipped him.”
Well, if it’s good enough for the Vicar …