Vol.6, No. 17
Daughters of Mary Commentary 3 January 2017
Matthew 2: 1-12
Lynn D. Clapper
The solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord marks the end of the twelve days of Christmastide. While for most of us, the festivities of Christmas wind down as we celebrate the beginning of the New Year, originally this feast was the focus of the Christmas season…assuming priority over the celebration of the actual birth of Jesus. Yet, Matthew is the only gospel writer to record the visit of the Magi, and we are right to wonder why such an important event would not be found in the other gospels.
The answers to this question are found in Matthew’s purpose for writing his gospel. It is most likely that Matthew wrote thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus…sixty years since the events he describes in this story. He was writing as a Jewish apostle of Jesus Christ to a Jewish audience to convince them that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecy that foretold the coming of Messiah who was to be King of all Israel.
But, the events of Matthew 2 teach us a slightly different lesson. As we will see, the kings who came from the east to visit a newborn king were not Jewish. The story of the coming of the Magi is considered to be the first manifestation of Jesus as Christ and Lord to all the people…Jews and Gentiles alike. This understanding was a point of argument for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day and throughout the remaining years of the first century. Let’s look closely at the rich detail Matthew provides.
The story opens by explaining that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city all Jewish people would have understood as the royal city of David. There had been more than one prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, and during the time of Mary and Joseph there existed widespread belief that the time was nigh for the coming of the new king. This prophecy was the cause of some uneasiness for King Herod, a ruthless, paranoid ruler, who came from a royal culture in which any hint of subversion or treason was cause for swift execution. The news of the birth of a king, in Herod’s own kingdom, would have been greatly troubling, indeed.
More troubling, however, would have been the fact that Magi had seen a rising star and made the trip to pay homage to a newly born king. Magi, or wise men, studied the movement of the stars and offered divine and political advice to kings based on their studies. They were highly educated, and held almost royal status in the society of Mary and Joseph’s day, especially if they hailed from the East. While not Jewish themselves, they would have been aware of the ancient Hebrew prophecies since the Jewish population had spread across the entire world during the years following their return from Babylonian exile. The Magi would have understood that the Jews were awaiting the birth of a king.
The sight of a rising star, however, would have been a commonly understood sign to these men that a new king had been born. As was the practice of their day, they would have set out in search of the infant king, so that they could pay him homage. Magi did not travel lightly. They typically traveled attired in royal robes with extensive entourages in tow. Their arrival in Jerusalem would not have gone unnoticed.
And, their arrival, Matthew tells us, was greatly troubling to Herod and to all Jerusalem. Always suspicious of treachery, Herod consulted with the Jewish leaders who confirmed the prophecy of the birth of the royal ruler of Israel. The crafty Herod then instructed the wise men to find the baby in Bethlehem, but to return to him with the baby’s whereabouts so that Herod, too, might pay the baby homage.
We know the rest of the story. The star continued to rise in the night sky until it hovered over the place in Bethlehem where the Magi found baby Jesus with his mother, Mary. Surely surprised at the new king’s humble surroundings, the wise men, nevertheless, prostrated themselves before Jesus in the usual manner of homage reserved for a king, and offered the baby Jesus royal gifts. But, Matthew tells us that our story takes an unusual turn as the Magi prepared to return to their homeland. Rather than travel back to Herod, as instructed, and reveal the whereabouts of the infant king, they heeded a warning they received in a dream, and returned to their country by another way.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, this story is placed just after the genealogy of Jesus Christ, and the story of the angel’s revelation to Joseph that Mary’s baby was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Each of these stories would have been a powerful reminder to the Jewish reader that Jesus was of the ancestral line of the revered king David, and that the baby born to Mary was the fulfillment of the prophecy that foretold the birth of Emmanuel. The visit of the Magi, and the story of the royal homage these wise men from the East paid to a baby born in Bethlehem, would have confirmed that Jesus was the king for whom the Jewish people had waited hundreds of years.
Yet, the appearance of the Magi, traveling from afar and seeking the newborn king of Israel, was troubling, not only for Herod, but for the entire city of Jerusalem. This is the lesson Matthew teaches. Writing years after the horrible crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the very people Jesus called his own, Matthew tells his readers that they first rejected their savior and king when they first heard the news of his birth. Matthew tells his Jewish audience that rather than following the star that must have been almost overhead, and seeking their newborn king, they were troubled by the news that kings from other lands came to seek him first.
And, this is how Matthew begins the story of the one who was to come. At the very beginning of the New Testament, Matthew tells us while God promised a savior who would save his people from their sins, while the prophets of old told that promise again and again so that the Hebrew people would never lose hope that a new king would come, the Jewish people were troubled by the news that their Messiah was a newborn baby. And, while the Jewish people ignored the signs that Emmanuel had come at last, wise men from the East, who knew not the God of the ancient Hebrews, traveled to a land not their own to pay homage to a newborn king guided only by the light of a rising star.
What does this story mean for Daughters of Mary? While we cannot know for sure Mary’s thoughts when the wise men arrived, arrayed in their royal finery with their camels and their attendants, or what ran through her mind when they presented her baby with the royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or her surprise when they lay prostate before her newborn son in homage due a king, we can guess that Mary’s thoughts were not different from yours and mine today. She was likely in awe that these wise men, who looked to the heavens for the signs of God in the world, recognized her baby as the new king of all Israel. She was likely in awe, that these wise men would leave their homes to seek a king they did not know, and, once having found him, would abandon the ways of the kings they had known before, and return to their country by another way. Perhaps she knew then, what we know now, and what Matthew was trying to explain to the Jews of his day, that Jesus was Christ and Lord for all the people. And, if later that night after the wise men had departed, and Jesus was once again fast asleep, Mary had stepped outside and looked up to see the stars in their infinite number, perhaps she would have remembered God’s words to Abram so many years ago, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so…will your descendants be (Gen 15:5).”
As we begin this new year, let us enter into Matthew’s story of a God who became man, and a man who was God, who was promised to a chosen people, but rejected by those who should have known him. Then, let us join the wise men from the East, and follow a star in search of a king, and once we find him, return to our homes by another way. Emmanuel has come. God is with us.
The New American Bible, Revised Edition