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Nativity First Sunday

Season of Nativity

First Sunday: MatThew 2:1-12
THE VISIT OF THE MAGI

INTRODUCTION

The Magi took unusual effort to pursue the savior of the world based on their astrological knowledge. While seeking the king of the Jews, they also announced the birth of the Emmanuel to King Herod, the priests, and the Jewish scholars in Jerusalem. However, King Herod’s reaction was to kill the child while the priests and the Scribes ignored the message. They all missed the great treasure that the wise men from the east searched and found. The kings presented gifts to the King of the Jews, and Jesus in return blessed them with salvation. Christians venerate the wise men as saints. Jesus and his message of salvation is the treasure for which we must give away everything else (Matthew 13:44-46) like the Magi.

BIBLE TEXT

(Matthew 2:1) When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem. (2) They asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw the rising of his star in the East and have come to honor him.” (3) When Herod heard this he was great­ly disturbed and with him all the people in Jerusalem. (4) He called a meeting of all high-ranking priests and experts of the Law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. (5) They told him, “In the town of Beth­­lehem in Judea, for this is what the proph­et wrote: (6) And you, Beth­lehem, land of Judah, you are by no means the least among the leading cities of Judah, for from you will come a leader, the one who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (7) So Herod called the wise men to a private meeting and found out from them the exact time when the star had appeared. (8) Then he sent them to Bethlehem with the instruction, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you have found him, report to me, so that I too may go and honor him.” (9) After the meeting with the king, they set out. The star that they had seen in the East went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. (10) The wise men were overjoyed on seeing the star again. (11) They went into the house and when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they knelt down and worshipped him. They opened their treasure chests and offered to him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (12) They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their home country by another way.

INTERPRETATION

The central theme of the Magi’s visit is the Jewish rejection and the Gentile acceptance of Infant Jesus.

(1) When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem.

Bethlehem, in Judea
The Evangelist Matthew specifies the birthplace of Jesus as “Bethlehem, in Judea” to distinguish it from another Bethlehem near the Sea of Galilee that was part of the tribe of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15). Bethlehem is six miles south of Jerusalem and its former name was Ephrath. Bethlehem means “the house of bread” because it was a fertile land for farming and animal rearing.

Some Old Testament events had happened in Bethlehem. Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel died on the road to Ephrath (Bethlehem) and he buried her near Ephrath where Jacob erected a pillar to mark her grave (Genesis 35:19-20, 48:7). Ruth lived and married Boaz here (Ruth 1:22). Bethlehem was the home and city of David (1Samuel 16:1, 17:12, 20:6). God had promised to David that the Messiah would come from his descendants (1 Chronicles 17: 11-14). Prophet Micah had specified that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

During the days of King Herod
Herod, the king of Jews, was half Jew and half Idumaean. Roman Senate with Antony’s recommendation first appointed him as governor in 47 B.C., and in 40 B.C. gave him the title as king. He ruled the Jews for a lengthy period until his death in 4 B.C. His title is Herod the Great because he was an able ruler, brought peace and order amid chaos, constructed prominent structures including the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He was generous to his people when they had economic difficulty and starvation. King Herod was at Jerusalem when the Magi arrived from the East though he had other residences.

Magi
The Magi were Medes from the Median tribe that was part of the Persian empire. They had tried to overthrow the Persians and establish the rule of Medes. When that failed, they became a tribe of priests like Levites of Israel. They also served as teachers and advisors of the Persian Kings. Hence, they were men of holiness and wisdom.

Magi were experts in all branches of knowledge. They were also astrologers, fortunetellers, and interpreters of dreams. The Bible does not specify how many wise men came. One tradition is that they were 12. The universal acceptance of three has link to the three gifts the Magi gave to Infant Jesus. The legends gave them names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

Matthew does not specify the Magi as kings. Some Old Testament texts predicted the visit of kings with the same gifts that Magi brought (Psalm 72:10, 15; Isaiah 60:6). That led to the interpretation that the Magi were kings. Another interpretation came from Palms 72:11. “All kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.” According to the Western church tradition, “Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Magi).

From the East
East of Jerusalem can mean Arabia, Persia, or Mesopotamia. The traditional concept is that Magi came from Persia.

Arrived in Jerusalem
The Magi came to Jerusalem, the capital city of Jews, because their assumption was that the King of the Jews might be born in that royal city. The star that guided them withdrew for a while, facilitating them to inform the birth of the Messiah to Herod the king of Jews, the priests, and the Jewish scholars. They symbolized the royal, priestly, and prophetic representatives of God. He thus communicated to them the incarnation of His son as the eternal king, priest, and prophet. However, the narrowminded leaders ignored the important message because it came through the Gentile kings.

(2) They asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw the rising of his star in the East and have come to honor him.”

Where is the newborn King of the Jews?
The Jewish leaders did not realize the birth of their king. They had to know it from the Gentile astronomers. The Jewish scholars, with document evidence, told the Magi that the eternal King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem. Still the Jewish elite did not search for their own king.

The question of Magi, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” implies that the Magi were not Jews. People in the East had a belief that a sovereign king of the world would arise from Judea. Both the Jews and Gentiles were awaiting the divinely promised king.

Star
Star can be any luminous meteor out on the sky. Modern astronomers calculate that it was Jupiter and so, not a star in the strict modern concept. There was an ancient belief that a fresh star would appear at the birth of a ruler.

(3) When Herod heard this, he was great­ly disturbed and with him all the people in Jerusalem.

King Herod gained authority over the Jews from the Roman emperor. The Jews could not accept him as their king because he was of a mixed race and not a descendant of King David. Based on the Holy Scripture, the Jews believed that their king should always be from the lineage of David. So, Herod was anxious about the rejective mentality of Jews toward him and he was vigilant to safeguard his kingship. His fanaticism for power made him kill even his wife Maraimne, her mother Alexandra, his sons Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus. Such an insane and power-obsessed king would eliminate an infant born as the legitimate king of Jews to replace him. The Jews in the whole Jerusalem troubled because they knew how Herod would get rid of any king born as their liberator.

(4) He called a meeting of all high-ranking priests and experts of the Law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

High ranking priests
The High Priest must be the living head of the Aaronic family. However, Romans had removed him to appoint their own favorite person in that prestigious position. The High Priests include the then High Priest along with those who held the same office before.

Experts of the Law
Scribes were transcribers of the law and readers in the synagogue. Later they also became interpreters of religious and civil laws. Some Bible scholars assume that Herod summoned the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of over 70 representatives, considering the importance of the matter.

Where the Messiah was to be born.
King Herod knew that there were prophesies on the birth of the Messiah. So, the High Priests and Scribes would tell him the birthplace of this divine savior.

(5) They told him, “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the proph­et wrote…

The scriptural experts knew the birthplace of the Messiah.

(6) “And you, Beth­lehem, land of Judah, you are by no means the least among the leading cities of Judah, for from you will come a leader, the one who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

The High Priests and the Scribes quoted from the prophet Micah 5:2.

Who is to shepherd my people Israel.
The Bible characterizes kings as shepherds of their people. It even considers God and Messiah also as shepherds of the people (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In Psalm 23:1, David says, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

(7) So Herod called the wise men to a private meeting and found out from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

Herod called the wise men to a private meeting.
Herod designed to destroy God’s plan of salvation in private because he did not trust anyone, including the Jewish leaders he consulted. He did not follow the Magi or send his soldiers along with them for fear that the Jews would accept and defend the newborn King who might soon replace him.

The time of the star’s appearance
Herod was smart to hide his anxiety on the birth announcement of his enemy king. He was diligent to find out the time of the star’s appearance to determine the newborn king’s time of birth. Based on that, he later ordered to kill children age two or below.

(8) Then he sent them to Bethlehem with the instruction, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you have found him, report to me, so that I too may go and honor him.”

Herod trusted the Magi who believed Herod and planned to return to him. They appreciated his good will to help them, and his “humbleness” to accept the newborn king and pay him homage.

(9) After the meeting with the king, they set out. The star that they had seen in the East went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.

The star disappeared for a while. That made the Magi to search for the newborn king in the palace of King Herod. A natural phenomenon like cloud hid the star for a long time. However, God made the star visible when they came out of Herod’s palace, to guide them to Bethlehem.

(10) The wise men were overjoyed on seeing the star again.

The Magi could not get any help from King Herod, except that he could tell with the help of the scripture scholars that the child must be born in Bethlehem. It was the God-sent star that guided them to Infant Jesus.

(11) They went into the house and when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they knelt down and worshipped him. They opened their treasure chests and offered to him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

On entering the house
According to the scholars, by the time the Magi arrived, Jesus might have grown few months and the Holy Family might have found someone’s house for their temporary stay in Bethlehem until Mary could travel back to Nazareth with the baby. So, Matthew writes that the Magi entered not a stable but a house.

They saw the child with Mary his mother.
The evangelist mentions the Child Jesus first because that was their purpose of the long and tedious journey from the far East. Though Joseph was present, Matthew mentions only Mary, the mother of the infant.

They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
The Magi saw divinity in the child. So they fell and worshipped the Infant Jesus. They came not to see a usual king of Jews but a divine savior of the world, which includes the Jews and Gentiles. That motivated them to travel an interminable distance to see this unknown child with no invitation from a palace or a royal family.

Offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
According to the tradition, the Magi were of different ages. Melchior was an old man with gray hair and long beard, who carried gold acknowledging the kingship of the child. Gaspar (Caspar) was young and beardless who brought frankincense honoring Jesus as God. Balthasar was middle aged, dark-complexioned with a black beard carrying myrrh signifying his pre-planned sacrificial death.

The offerings were religious items to God representing the three-fold functions of Jesus. Frankincense is an aromatic that priests used in the sacrificial offering because animal sacrifices were stinky. It stood for Jesus, the new High Priest and the Lamb of God who sacrificed his life replacing all the earlier animal sacrifices. People used myrrh in perfuming ointments to anoint the representatives of God: prophets, priests, and king. So, it stood for the prophetic role of Jesus. Ancient people used myrrh for embalming the dead bodies. Thus, it also signified the death and burial of Jesus. The gold, the king of metals, represented the kingship of Jesus, though his kingship differed from worldly kings. These three valuable gifts benefitted the Holy family at a time of poverty because of their unexpected stay in Bethlehem and later in Egypt as refugees.

(12) They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their home country by another way.

The Magi also believed in the dream and avoided their return to King Herod. So, they had to leave hiding from the king and his officers to save the life of the Infant Jesus.

Story of Magi after they left Bethlehem

A 14th century cleric John of Hildesheim in his writing Historia Trium Regum (The History of the Three Kings), gives the story of what happened to the Magi: The three wise men, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, were kings of “Ind, Chaldea, and Persia.” They traveled non-stop from their own lands, “in great haste.” When they departed Bethlehem after worshipping the Infant Jesus, they continued together until they reached the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind. It was here that the star first appeared to the Magi. There was a watchtower there. Before leaving to their own countries, the three kings agreed to meet at that place once a year. They also decided that their burial should be at the Hill of Vaws.

Years later, a star appeared above the cities in which the kings lived just before Christmas, signifying to them they were near death. They gathered at the Hill of Vaws and built a large tomb for them. When they died, the grieving local people buried them in the same tomb.

Queen St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, collected the bodies of the three kings and brought them into the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople in the Fourth century. At a later period, because of persecution of Christians, Emperor Mauricius moved the relics to a church in Milan. In the 12th century, Roman Emperor Frederick I rewarded the relics to Archbishop of Cologne Rainald von Dassel for offering him military aid to win a war in Italy against Milan. So, the archbishop moved the relic to Cologne in 1164. (https://archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/threekings).

The Church in Cologne keeps the relics now above and behind the high altar of the Catholic Cathedral there. The church venerates Magi as saints. The tradition of exchanging gifts during Christmas season has its origin from the three kings who gave gifts to Infant Jesus.

MESSAGE

1. Sacrificial search of the Magi
These wise men were like treasure hunters. Their treasure was not a regular king, but a divine king who would be their savior. If they believed that he was only a King of the Jews, they would not have taken so much risk to travel during a chilly winter following a star that became their navigator. The star could guide them only at night. And even at night, it was invisible at times because of the cloud. That made them seek the help of King Herod. While the pagans were searching for God, the Jewish leaders were ignoring him. Like the Magi, let us risk ourselves and search Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6).

2. Corrupt Jewish Leaders
When the Romans ruled the Jews, they overthrew the traditional successors of Aaron and David from priesthood and kingship. So, King Herod was not even a Jew, but of a mixed race. The High Priest and the members of Sanhedrin were corrupt and supporters of King Herod. They wanted to please Herod rather than seeking God incarnate in Bethlehem. So, they took an approach of indifference to the born Messiah and continued involving in the Temple rituals. Let us examine how much we are indifferent to Jesus and his church, and how corrupt we are because of our attachment to the world.

3. Message Ignored
When the Angel of the Lord informed the shepherds in Bethlehem, they responded instantly by searching and worshipping Jesus. God informed King Herod, the High Priest, and the whole Sanhedrin about the birth of the long-awaited Messiah through the royal Magi. However, none of them cared, and Herod attempted to assassinate the Infant Jesus.

4. Exchange of Christmas gifts
Though people depict St. Nicholas as Santa Claus for the gift distribution to children, the origin of Christmas gift sharing is from the Holy Wise Men who offered gifts to Infant Jesus. God the Father supported the Holy Family during poverty by the gifts of these holy men. Our gift giving during Christmas season becomes pleasing to God only when we give charitable gifts to the less fortunate in the society on behalf of Jesus.