The Three Wise Men of Cologne Cathedral

In September 2010 my wife, Cornelia, travelled to Germany to visit her ancestral home, taking our daughter, Carla, so she could gain some cultural insights into her European heritage. After visiting Cuxhaven, on the North Sea, they joined a tour that would allow them to circumnavigate the country, providing a taste of the various cultures that define each unique region.

When the tour group visited Cologne (Köln) they made the obligatory visit to the World Heritage listed, Saints Peter and Mary Cathedral, once the tallest building in the world and still boasting the world’s largest church façade.

On Cornelia’s and Carla’s return to Australia, I was fascinated with a picture they’d taken there of The Shrine of the Three Kings (Dreikönigsschrein).

Shrine of Three Kings (Cologne Cathedral, Germany)

This golden, and highly decorated, triple sarcophagus can be found behind the main altar of the church. Contained within it is said to be the bones of The Three Kings, or Wise Men, from the Biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew 2:1–12.

The story of the Magi has been one that has captured our imagination, ever since it was first told in Matthew’s gospel, written 40 or so years after Jesus’ death.

Each year at Christmas we sing that beautiful 1857 carol by Rev. John Henry Hopkins, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ as a reminder of the regal visit to Jesus by those who knew, through scripture, to look for the one who’d be the King of Kings.

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, n Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV)

 

Creating a timeless version of this story in song is one thing, but, immortalizing the story’s participants, The Three Wise Men, is another.

The inherent problem with such a monument as The Shrine of the Three Kings, comes from the importance many place on it. This is true for many of the religious relics gathered from the Holy Land over the centuries. Even in Jerusalem, when you visit the Via Dolorosa, (Latin for The Way of Grief), many pilgrims touch the walls believing they may gain some great blessing from touching a place where Jesus may have placed his hand.

No place, or thing, or person, can bring you closer to God but you.

Jesus was born as a human baby, and lived on this earth to show that there is no intermediary between Him and us. It is only through Him that we can go to the Father.

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.’” John 14:6-7 NIV

When it comes to the Magi’s visit to the lowly stable, Biblical scholars cannot even agree on how many were in their party. Many assume there were three because scripture records, “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11b). Three gifts, three wise men.

The timing of the visit is also in contestation, with some suggesting it may have been up to two years after Jesus’ birth before The Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. This thought comes from the fact that Herod had met with the Magi before they arrived in Bethlehem, at which time they told him of the timing of the star that led them. (Matthew 2:7). Some believe it was these dates that led Herod to order the execution of all babies up to two years of age.

While much has been researched and written about these Three Wise Men, with a great deal of conjecture coloring the traditional story, there is one thing we know for certain; that Magi, who were religious and political advisors to the regal courts of the east, knew of the impending birth of a child that was the Christ, foretold by ancient prophets. They waited on God to give them a sign that would lead them to him, and they were prepared to go humbly to him in adoration.

This is the fundamental message we gain from the Magi’s presence in Bethlehem.

One writer from gotquestions.org summarized The Three Wise Men  this way:[1]

“So, the magi were men who:
1)       read and believed God’s Word,
2)        sought Jesus,
3)        recognized the worth of Christ,
4)        humbled themselves to worship Jesus, and
5)        obeyed God rather than man. They were truly wise men!”

 

The understanding this writer has gleaned from Matthew’s gospel is excellent. It doesn’t embellish the facts, nor is it a gaudy representation of the importance of The Three Wise Men. It doesn’t elevate the worldly positions of Jesus’ visitors from the Orient but clearly shows that The Three Wise Men’s mission was focused on giving adoration to the long awaited Messiah. The Magi were led there because their knowledge of God’s Word prepared them for this event, and they remained ever watchful for the sign that would take them on their journey.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites erected stones of remembrance as memorials to what the Lord had done. They drew people in, begging the question, “What happened here?”The Shrine of the Three Kings should be regarded in the same manner. Rather than being a place where people feel closer to those who God might have used, we should stop and consider the faith that compelled these noblemen to travel over 1200 kilometres, through a hostile land, in order to pay homage to the baby Jesus.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that you will keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, that you may grow in your knowledge and commitment to your Saviour, as shown by The Three Wise Men.

Merry Christmas.

Peter

We Three Kings

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Pray’r and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav’n replies
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

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