Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior. You've heard their names: According to legend, they're the three Persian wise men, or kings, who traveled by camel across the desert sands to Bethlehem, in pursuit of a star. As the Christmas season nears, we gather with family and friends, singing of the Kings and their visit to the Christ Child, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But what do we really know about the Magi, the Kings who came from the East? The Gospels don't tell us much. We don't know their names through Scripture, but only through tradition; we don't know whether there were really three of them, or whether their number was much larger. We don't really know what gifts they brought—although that, too, is popular tradition.

Pope Benedict XVI said of the Magi:

“The men of whom Matthew speaks are not just astronomers. They were 'wise.' They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and, hence, 'philosophy' in the original sense of the word.”

Helping to differentiate between the stuff of legend and the verifiable facts is Grzegorz Górny's international bestseller Three Kings, Ten Mysteries: The Secrets of Christmas and Epiphany, just released in English by Ignatius Press. Translated from the original Polish, the book is an assemblage of fine art, full-color photographs, maps, and a compelling narrative.

Górny looks at the life of Matthew, the evangelist whose gospel narrative describes the visit by the Magi to the feed trough where the newborn Christ Child lay.

Is the gospel story accurate, or imbued with creative symbolism? Górny proves its accuracy, citing an inscription on the wall of an ancient temple in Anbara, Turkey; papyruses discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt; and a vessel from Qumran in which were kept the Essenian papyrus scrolls. 

Why is the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ, the oldest of all the feast days instituted by the Church? “These days,” explains Górny, “it commemorates the Adoration of the Magi, but in ancient times it represented a number of different events simultaneously: Christ's birth; the arrival of the Wise Men; Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan; and the Wedding at Cana, where Christ performed his first miracle.

Górny unpacks the messianic prophecies—showing, for example, how the ox and ass frequently depicted near the manger are rife with symbolism. (The ass represents the Jews, while the ox symbolizes the pagan gentiles.)  Jesus' birth date, signs in the sky, secrets of ancient Bethlehem, and so many other things are explored in depth.

I saw for the first time, in Three Kings, Ten Mysteries, a frankincense tree (boswellia sacra) growing in the desert. In the Old Testament, the use of frankincense is specified for the worship of God. Myrrh, the aromatic resin of trees in the commiphora family, was used to make incense, perfume, and oils to anoint the body. I saw the Sacra Culla, or Holy Manger—a relic venerated as Jesus' manger, in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome. Scientific tests have revealed that the manger is made of five maple laths, aged around two thousand years and originating in Palestine. I saw the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, believed to be the cave where the Holy Family stopped for the night during their escape into Egypt. While nursing Jesus, a drop of milk from Mary's breast fell on the rock face which, according to legend, turned milky white in color. Today, Christian and Muslim couples pray here for the gift of a child.

Three Kings, Ten Mysteries is available at Catholic and other bookstores, through Ignatius Press or Amazon.