Matt 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Matt 2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The readings from the Infancy Gospels bear an unusually close link to narratives in the Old Testament. Again, the writer is exploring the identity of Jesus, using citations and re-written narratives. It all may seem strange to us, but the original hearers—Jewish Christians—would have had no trouble picking up the resonances and going straight to the meaning expressed in the stories.
Kind of writing
This is a kind of haggadah, a Rabbinic style of writing which explores and exposes meaning by a resonant acoustic of echoes, thereby creating devotional and uplifting literature. Everything is in some way symbolic, the star, the magi, the king, Bethlehem and the gifts, pointing to the identity of Jesus and the inclusion of the Gentiles in salvation.
Old Testament background
(i) Behind the story of the magi—wise men—lies the story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. In the Book of Numbers, an evil king of Moab tries to use the seer/magus Balaam to bring disaster on the people of Israel “because they were so numerous”. Against God’s will, Balaam obeys the king, but at the point of cursing Israel, Balaam utters an oracle of future hope. This oracle was read in later times as a Messianic promise. I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near— a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel. (Num 24:17) The author takes from this story the narrative of an evil King (Balak / Herod), trying to bring disaster (on Israel / on the Messiah), by means of Balaam (a seer / the Magi). The star in the story comes from Numbers 24:17 above and alerts the reader this time to Messianic fulfilment. (ii) The gifts offered by the magi call to mind a universalist text in Isaiah: A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Is 60:6) It was concluded from this text as well that the mode of transport of the magi was camels, although Matthew supplies no such detail. (iii) The Magi as a symbol of the Gentiles comes from an echo in Psalm 72: May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. (Psa 72:10-11) (iv) Bethlehem, the city of David, is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, unlike Nazareth. The proof text provided was, at the time, read as a messianic prophecy. But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Mic 5:2)
New Testament Foreground
(i) Matthew’s Gospel reflects the historical memory that Jesus did not himself directly evangelise the Gentiles, at least initially. “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 10:5-7) (ii) Nevertheless, in Matthew’s Gospel and community, the Gentiles are an important audience of the Good News (15-6-13-5). [a] At the start of the ministry: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”” (Matt 4:12-17) [b] During the ministry: “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”” (Matt 12:15-21) [c] At the close of the Gospel: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:16-20)
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27)
Once the Old Testament correspondences and the Gospel anticipations have been uncovered the text practically comments itself. Nevertheless (!): Verse 1 This is King Herod the Great, who died in 4 bc. The “wise men” are literally “magi”. Magus, a Persian loan word, covers a range of meanings: wise man and priest, who was expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other occult arts. From the East: traditionally, the source of wisdom. Verse 2 The Gentiles identify universal hope in the Jewish Messiah and king. Verses 3-5 The historical Herod was quite paranoid about usurpers and even had some of his sons killed. Augustus said of him: “I would prefer to be his pig (hus) than his son (huios).” This was after Herod put his two favourite sons, Aristobolus and Alexander, to death (he had already executed their mother, his favourite wife Mariamne). He was a particularly dangerous spouse and parent. Verses 5-6 Matthew has Bible experts (like himself) identify the birth-place of the Messiah, with a proof-text from Micah. “Shepherd” reminds us of David, the great symbol of God’s faithfulness through time. Verses 7-9 The (f)rank hypocrisy of Herod links this symbolic tale with the massacre of the innocents to follow. Verse 10 Joy comes back in Matthew 28:8 at the empty tomb. For other uses, see Matt 2:10; 13:20, 44; 25:21, 23; 28:8. Verse 11 Fulfilling Ps 72 and Isa 60, as noted above. Verse 12 With no further narrative use for them, the Magi are taken “off stage” somewhat peremptorily.
Pointers for prayer
1. What is the star (the vision, hope or purpose) which lights up your journey? 2. Like the wise men, our life journey is not one we travel alone. Who are the people who share you life journey now? 3. The wise men travelled bearing gifts. What gift do you bring with you on the journey? 4. At times the wise men lost sight of the star. What clouds have obscured your star? 5. Who, or what, might be Herod for you now? What forces, within or without, could subvert the dream or goal?
Lord God of the nations, we have seen the star of your glory rising in splendour. The radiance of your incarnate Word pierces the darkness that covers the earth and signals the dawn of peace and justice. Make radiant the lives of your people with that same brightness, and beckon all the nations to walk as one in your light. We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
In our deepest selves, each of us is a mystery: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? How should I live? The risk in our present culture is to sleepwalk through life, to be satisfied with a merely material existence. But the human “project” is much greater. Each of us is really on a pilgrimage, or better on a quest — a quest to become my true self, in the image and likeness of God. My truest self is found by being open to God, in whom we live and move and have our being. By following that star, by listening to our conscience and inner selves, we come home to God. Prayer You are the mystery at the heart all that exists: draw us to yourself, O Lord, that knowing you we find our true selves, and finding our true selves, we may come to know you.