Jan. 8, 2017
Matt 2: 1-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem…” (Matt 2: 1).
Adoration of the Magi
Fra Angelico, ca. 1445
Who are these strange visitors, these unusual visitors, these magi “from the east”? We certainly wish St. Matthew had told us more. The oral tradition of the early disciples of Jesus, passed down—we presume—from our Blessed Mother to the apostles to the 1st generations of Christians probably had lost track of some of the details of the story; you can think, maybe, of some of your own family stories going back to your grandparents or great-grandparents. When Matthew, sometime in the 8th decade of the 1st century (we estimate), wrote the story down to introduce his Gospel, he included only information that the Church considered truly important, perhaps all that was remembered with any certainty.
According to renowned New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, the term magi, or magus in the singular, referred to men who were “engaged in occult arts: astronomers, fortunetellers, priestly augurers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility. Matthew probably thinks of astronomers.” I’m not sure why Fr. Brown would call astronomy an “occult art,” but perhaps in the 1st century it was more akin to astrology, which is another art altogether. Had Fr. Brown been writing a few years later, he might also have mentioned Jedi knights or Dumbledore and his pupils. Be that as it may, we’ve come to understand the magi as “wise men” in general. I hope it doesn’t shake anyone’s faith to realize that they weren’t kings at all; that’s a medieval legend, about as reliable as the old English carol “I Saw Three Ships” come sailing into Bethlehem (which isn’t anywhere near the water).
While Matthew says the magi brought 3 gifts to the Christ Child, he doesn’t say how many wise men made the journey “from the east,” i.e., from Babylonia or Persia. They could have been 2, 3, 5, 10—and a long journey “from the east” would have invited a much larger party than 3 if only for safety. Matthew doesn’t say clearly when they arrived in Jerusalem, but he does say later, in the story about Herod’s murder of all the male children in and around Bethlehem, that they had 1st seen the star up to 2 years previously (which, by the way, would place the birth of Jesus in 6 or 7 B.C. Herod died in 4 B.C.). And he says that they found “the child with Mary his mother on entering the house” where they were (2:11)—not in a stable.
But those sorts of details are secondary. What’s the message of the magi’s coming to Bethlehem and paying homage to the newborn king of the Jews (cf. 2:2,11)? 1st and most important is that this Child is king of all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about Jewish shepherds coming to the manger (that’s St. Luke); he presents these foreigners, these pagans, these Gentiles, as the 1st ones to honor Christ, to submit themselves to his majesty. Matthew will end his Gospel on a similar note, when Jesus commissions the apostles to go out into the whole world and “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Good News that Jesus “shall save his people from their sins”—the angel’s words to St. Joseph in ch. 1:21—is for all people everywhere. All people are his people!
These pagan wise men began their discovery of God’s Good News by observing a star. From ancient times men and women have been able to discover something about God and to worship him in some fashion based on natural reason, on philosophy, on the observance of nature, on the natural instinct for justice that’s in the human heart, etc. That’s still true today for honest searchers into truth and wisdom.
But the magi couldn’t find this Savior on their own. The star led them to Jerusalem—the logical place to look for a new king of the Jewish people. But then they were lost. They needed some additional help, and this they found in divine revelation, in the Sacred Scriptures, which the chief priests and the scribes had studied and which they revealed to King Herod and the strangers from the East. While we can know God to some extent from natural reason—nature, philosophy, etc.—we can’t know him fully without revelation. To know God more completely, we must have the Scriptures opened for us; we must encounter Jesus Christ, the living Word of God; we must listen to the teaching of Christ’s Church, not making new revelation but interpreting the ancient revelation of the Scriptures and the Person of Jesus.
The chief priests and the scribes presented the revelation to the magi and King Herod. Then all of them had to make a decision. What would they do about what had been revealed to them? They all knew about the star and the magi’s understanding of its meaning, and they all heard what the Hebrew prophets had said about the Messiah.
The magi continued on their mission, seeking the One whom God had sent. They paid him homage, presented their gifts, and submitted themselves to Christ the King.
Not so Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes. Matthew makes the point that “all Jerusalem” was “greatly troubled” by what the magi reported, and no one—no one!—went along with the Gentile searchers to seek and meet the Messiah. They were indifferent or even hostile to God’s greatest revelation. They chose to continue living in their fear, to cling to their fragile earthly power, to do vicious violence upon the innocent, to reject the One who offers to all humanity a heavenly kingdom so much more precious than ruling over Judea. Here Matthew of course is foreshadowing Jesus’ condemnation 35 years later by the successors of King Herod and these Jewish leaders.
What is our decision about “the newborn king of the Jews”? How seriously are we looking for God? Where do we look for him? If we think we’ve found him in a cute baby lying in the hay, we haven’t looked far enuf. When the truth and goodness of Jesus are presented to us in the Gospels, in the rest of the Scriptures, in the teaching of the Church that Jesus commissioned to make disciples of all nations, are we ready to accept that truth and goodness, submit ourselves to them, live by them, practice truth and goodness as God’s revelation shows us? God’s revealed truth convicts us as sinners because like Herod and his friends in Jerusalem we often choose darkness rather than light, fear rather than love, evil rather than goodness. God’s revealed goodness, on the other hand, assures us that our repentance brings us the forgiveness and mercy we don’t deserve and can’t earn, thru the passion and resurrection of Jesus. How much homage do we pay to humanity’s King, and what treasures do we offer him?
 An Adult Christ at Christmas. Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories: Matthew 2 and Luke 2 (Collegeville, 1978), p. 11, n. 18.
 I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that in his scholarly publications; maybe in a less formal lecture.