The twelve days of Christmas end on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1) coming to worship the child Jesus in Bethlehem. They are commonly called “Three Kings,” but the Bible doesn’t call them that and doesn’t limit their number to just three.
With the exception of King David, the Bible does not present kings in a good light. It is rich in portrayals of the foolishness of worldly power, beginning with Pharaoh, King of Egypt—the “superpower” of that era—who proved powerless against God’s servant Moses, whom the Bible describes as the “meekest” of men (Numbers 12:3). Then, there is the long, sad chronicle of the kings of Israel, beginning with King Solomon himself, who forsook his wisdom by taking wives from among his Gentile neighbors (no fewer than 700 in his harem, we are told) and adopting the worship of their gods and goddesses (I Kings 11:3). Almost all the subsequent rulers of Israel made the same foolish mistake of allying themselves with more powerful neighboring states, abandoning their own God and the wisdom of his law. They brought disaster, invasion, exile, and oppression to their people. By the time of Jesus, Israel had become a province of Rome, ruled by a tyrant (Herod) whose bloody trail of political assassinations was the price of his successful strategy of being on the winning side of every imperial conflict, but who ended (as the gospel tells us) with complete frustration in the face of the most serious of all his challenges—a baby born in a stable.
Tradition refers to the wise men who paid homage to this baby as “kings,” perhaps to underline the contrast between them and Herod—Herod foolishly scheming to protect his power, and they wisely acknowledging God’s power in the weakness of this tiny child. An early Christian writer puts it this way: They [the wise men] came to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come (St. Quodvultdeus, Sermo II de Symbolo, Patrologia Latina 40.655).
The weakness of the tiny child in Bethlehem foretells the weakness of the man stretched out upon a Cross with the inscription “King of the Jews” over it; the crucified King about whom a Roman soldier declared, “This truly is the Son of God.” As St. Paul put it, the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1:25). The wisdom of the wise men was to see in advance the tragedy and triumph of the gospel story: The Cross of Jesus leading to his resurrection—the story which really is the key to human history, Herod’s pursuit of worldly power being foolishness that ends in tragedy, and the Gentiles’ pursuit of the true God being wisdom that embraces tragedy but ends in triumph.