Who were the Wise Men?
The tradition of the Three Magi, or the Three Wise Men, remembers the men who followed a directive from the Holy Spirit to go pay homage to the Redeemer. It is not actually known how many Magi visited the Christ Child, but general tradition tends to believe there were at least three, and some believe there might have been twelve. By the eighth century, the Western Church had settled on the number three, and believed the names to be Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. They were not kings, but some believe them to have been “wellnigh kings” or nearly kings. They are also often seen as astrologer-priests. This fits non-Biblical evidence that points to the Magi being not kings but members of a sacred caste. The Magi came from the east, possibly from around ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia. The Magi went to Bethlehem to find Jesus, probably a year or more after Jesus was born, and likely at the beginning of 4 BC or the end of 5 BC. Based on the Magi's information regarding the Star and why they were following it, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.
The journey from Persia to Bethlehem would have taken up to twelve months by camel, and taken a good deal of preparation beforehand. Obviously we can't know with any certainty what date they finally came to Bethlehem, just as we do not know on what historical date Jesus was actually born. While St. Augustine believed that the two dates we celebrate (Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany, the Magi coming to Jesus, on January 6) were historically correct, in reality they are not. Nevertheless, we typically remember the Magi on January 6.
The Magi didn't know that they were going to find the Son of God, but were expecting a sort of heavenly counterpart to the earthly man, an undoubtedly important person. There had been long-standing expectations of the coming of a deliverer from the unrest during the time, but even acknowledging this we should allow that there must have been some kind of Divine Revelation that lead the Magi to follow the star and expect to find someone incredible beyond words (in the person of Jesus). Everyone in Jerusalem heard and knew about the Magi's journey when they arrived, including Herod and his priests who were and worried by the discovery of why the Magi were there.
Once they arrived at the place where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were, the Magi adored him as was fitting (they are said to have fallen down prostrate, which influenced Christian practice – before this, prostration and kneeling, which was done in Luke's narrative of the Nativity, were seen as undignified, but including both of these gestures in the birth narratives caused them to begin to be used widely in the early Christian Church), and they gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the Oriental custom. In their sleep the Magi were told not to return to Herod, and so they left Bethlehem by another route that avoided Jerusalem. Tradition holds that the Magi were baptized by St. Thomas upon returning to their country, and worked to spread the faith. It is believed that St. Helena found their remains in the fourth century on her pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands and brought them back to Constantinople. Eventually they were moved to Milan and then Cologne, Germany, where they remain today in the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.
The belief of the meaning behind the three gifts given can fall into two groups, according to some: the gifts are those typical to give a king, and the gifts are prophetic of Jesus' nature. In the first group, the myrrh was often given to kings as an anointing oil, the frankincense a perfume, and the gold a valuable. In the second group, gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense a symbol of priestship, and myrrh a symbol of death (as it could be an embalming oil) – in other words the gifts represent Jesus as king, priest, and savior. Alternately, in this second group gold symbolizes virtue; frankincense, prayer; and myrrh, suffering. In another reading of their meanings, gold represents Christ's regal power as well as the Magi's fervent charity; frankincense represents a confession of Christ's Godhead as well as the Magi's devotion; myrrh represents a testimony that Christ was become man for the redemption of the world as well as the unreserved sacrifice of the Magi themselves.
It isn't known what happened to the gifts after the Magi left them, but one logical conclusion is that the gold was used to help finance the Holy Family's flight into Egypt to escape from Herod. Beyond that, it is clear that their meaning in being given was more important than any practical purpose they might have had. Although they did not know exactly who it was they were honoring, the Magi still honored Christ as he deserves to be honored by all, even today.