The Epiphany 2021

My Dear People, 

Happy New year to everyone!

The word magi originally described members of the Median and Persian priestly caste who advised the king and interpreted dreams. The term later was used more broadly to denote those who possessed mystical knowledge as priests, astrologers, soothsayers, or sages. Their popular association with kings today may be based on an Old Testament passage that recounts kings bringing gifts to the royal Davidic line (ps. 72:10-11), including gifts of gold and frankincense. (Isa 60:3-6). In the Jewish traditions, magi would bring to mind the opponents of Daniel in Babylon, who were associated with enchanters and sorcerers and claimed to interpret dreams and signs (Dan. 1:20; 2:2; 4:6-7; 5:7). Hence one would not expect magi from the east to be among the first to pay homage to the Jewish messiah. This account thus sets up a theme that will be repeated throughout Matthew’s Gospel: Israel’s king is welcomed by those one would least expect while Jewish leaders work against him (2:4). 

The account of the magi following a star and searching for a king underscores Jesus’ kingship by recalling the prophecy of Balaam in Num. 24. In that episode, the Moabite king, Balak, called upon a seer named Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel. However, each time Balaam tried to curse Israel, God took control of his speech, and words of blessing came out of his mouth instead. In his last attempt to curse Israel, the spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied about a future king arising out of Israel. According to this oracle, a star would be the sign of the great king’s arrival (Num. 24:17). 

All this foreshadows the events associated with Herod, the magi, and the birth of Jesus. Just as Balak sought to use the pagan seer Balaam to destroy Israel, so Herod seeks to use the pagan magi to destroy the Christ child. And just as Balaam failed to cooperate with the king’s plan, uttering blessings instead of curses, so the magi fail to assist Herod in his plot to destroy Jesus, paying the child homage instead of reporting his location to Herod. Balaam prophesied about a star heralding the coming of a great king to Israel; the magi see that star and come to worship the newborn king. Thus, the magi stand as “successors to Balaam” in the sense that they pay homage to the king that Balaam foretold long ago. 

The Idea of a star signaling the birth of a great person or king was popular in the ancient world. Various explanations have been offered as to what this star guiding the magi was: (1) it was a comet, such as Halley’s comet that appeared in 12-11 BC; (2) it was a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which gave appearance of a bright single star in 7 BC (Note this appeared 2 weeks ago on December 21, where Jupiter and Saturn combined to appear to us as one star)  or (3) the star was a stellar explosion—a nova—which is reported to have been sighted in 5-4 BC. This is more accurate with the date of the birth of Christ, due to the error of 4 or so years to establish our calendar.  One shortcoming of these naturalistic explanations is that the star in Matthew’s gospel leads the magi and then comes to rest over the house (2:9)—things ordinary stars do not do. This suggests that—whatever the nature of the star in Matthew 2 might have been—God intervened in an extraordinary way to lead the magi to the messiah. One interesting proposal is that the star guiding the magi represents an angelic figure in the tradition that stars were associated with angels, and the guiding star in Mathew’s Gospel recalls the angel God sent to guide the people in the desert on their way to the promised land (Exodus 14:19). Thus, while some natural stellar phenomenon might have initially led the magi in search of a king, Matthew is telling us that God is providing a supernatural guide to lead the magi to Christ, just as he provided Israel with an angel to lead them through the desert. 

When the news about the magi’s quest spreads around Jerusalem, King Herod becomes greatly troubled. Herod was not born king of the Jews, He was an Idumean, whose family got itself appointed by Rome to rule over the Jews. Magi following a star and seeking the newborn king of the Jews would have been quite alarming to the ethnically non-Jewish Herod, especially in these later years of his life when he was violently paranoid about any potential rival to his throne. 

Herod gathers together the chief priests and the scribes who were part of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem under Herod and inquired of them where the messiah was to be born. Matthew notes that Herod was assembling them, which recalls a passage from Ps 2 foretelling that the rulers of this world will assemble against the Lord’s anointed king (Ps 2:2). This word assembling is used often in Matthew’s Passion Narrative to describe the chief priests and scribes assembling against Christ to plot his death (26:3, 57; 27:1, 17, 27,62). By using this same word to describe the chief priests and scribes gathering with Herod, Matthew emphasizes that at the very beginning of Christ’s life, the Jewish leaders are already working against the Lord’s Messiah, playing the role of wicked rulers in Ps 2. 

The chief priests and scribes tell Herod that the messiah was expected to be born in Bethlehem,  a city charged with Davidic hopes. This was the place where David was born and, according to the prophet Micah, the new Davidic king was expected to come from this city (Mic. 5:1).The Jewish leaders quote this passage and then go on to say that this ruler will shepherd my people Israel—an echo of God’s words to David at the beginning of his reign (2 Sam 5:2), for the star preceded them and stopped over the house, see 2:2. 

The magi’s long journey reached a climax as they entered the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother.  This reference to Mary and the child in a house in Bethlehem can stand in complete harmony with Luke’s account of the child being laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). Since first-century peasant homes in Palestine often had the lodging place of persons on one level and animals dwelling with a manger on a lower level. (this was like the house I was born and grew up in-- the stable was on the ground floor, and the living quarters were upstairs).  The house the magi visit in Matt. 2 might be the same house where Jesus was born in Luke 2.  Another possibility is that Jesus was born in a cave near Bethlehem and that later the holy family moved to a more comfortable dwelling, a house, which is where the magi find them.

The magi prostrate themselves (prostration before kings was common in the ancient Near East). Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, prostration and giving homage are associated with divine worship. The Gentile magi, therefore, offer Christ the worship that Herod, the chief priests, and scribes failed to offer. 

The gifts of gold, frankincense (an expensive perfume used for incense in worship), and myrrh (an exotic spice) represents luxurious gifts for a king. The gifts also recall prophecies about the nations coming to pay homage to the king of Israel, falling down before him and offering gifts of gold and frankincense (Psalm 72:10-11; Isa 60:1-6). As such, this scene underscores that Jesus is not just king of the Jews (2:2)—he is king of the whole world

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Vincent Clemente


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