by Br Julian McDonald
Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage”…When word of their enquiry got to Herod, he was terrified, and so was the whole of Jerusalem…Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the magi. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared…In a dream, the magi were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. Matthew 2, 1-12
NOTE: The Church’s calendar sometimes varies from one country to another, from one diocese to another. This coming Sunday in some places is listed as the Second Sunday after Christmas and in others as Epiphany or the feast of the Three Kings. This reflection is on the meaning and significance of Epiphany.
Matthew is the only Gospel to carry the story of the magi. That makes me wonder if it’s a story he uses to convey a message rather than an account of an historical event. Let’s remember that all stories are true irrespective of whether they are fact or fiction. All stories reveal something of the story-teller and something about how we human beings think, feel and exercise our imaginations. That said, what prompted Matthew to include this story in his Gospel?
The story of the magi has captured the imagination of people for centuries. Over time, commentators on the story have made assumptions and additions. For instance, they have concluded that the magi were three in number simply because they came with three gifts (unusual gifts, too). In time, they were given exotic names – Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar (Casper)! Despite the modern trend to give new-born boys unusual names, these are three that have not yet come into vogue. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel clearly knew the Old Testament and seemingly built his story from snippets in the Book of Psalms and the prophet Isaiah: “The kings of Tarshish and the islands will pay him tribute. The kings of Sheba and Saba will offer gifts; all kings will do him homage, all nations become his servants (Psalm 72, 10-11) and “ Camels in throngs will fill your streets, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; everyone in Saba will come, bringing gold and incense and proclaiming God’s praises” (Isaiah 60, 6).In time, to give the dimension of universality to the story, one of the magi became black-skinned.
Whatever our preferred description of these visitors to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it is clear that they were not from among the local inhabitants. They were outsiders, foreigners and easily identified by their distinctive clothes. As Matthew tells the story, their unexpected arrival clearly started tongues wagging, and so much so that the gossip got to Herod.
The great Scripture scholar Raymond Brown contests that Matthew relates the story the way he does precisely because he wanted his audience and the generations that succeeded them to set their imaginations to work, to fill in all the unspoken parts of the story so that eventually they might imagine the unimaginable – that God’s love for the world is such that it includes everybody; that, like the magi, people from every race and nation, people of every colour and creed, people of all faiths and of none are welcome to God’s embrace. The magi paved the way for everyone to come streaming to receive the message of Jesus the Messiah: that God’s love and mercy are for all, without exception – for the people of Katmandu, of Timbuktu, of Long Island and Limulunga, of Goonoo Goonoo and Goroka, and everywhere in between.
However, we know from our own experience that people who look and dress differently are often regarded with suspicion. Foreigners and outsiders are treated warily and even rejected. Just think of the names that were attached to migrants and refugees who came to the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the wake of the Second World War and after the war in Vietnam. The names pinned on them were not exactly complimentary, and were rather an insight into the prejudices held by the residents of the countries which accepted them, but were slow to actually welcome them. And history is repeating itself even now, except this time round foreigners and refugees are being denied the opportunity to make for themselves a new life. They are being locked out of the countries whose citizens of an earlier generation were thrown a life-line by their brothers and sisters in distant lands.
The magi who turned up in Jerusalem were more than nondescript itinerants. They had class, sophistication and education. They knew about the stars and were able to use them to navigate their way. Their arrival in Jerusalem turned heads and even caused anxiety at the highest level. Despite his attempt at cunning, all Herod succeeded in doing was to demonstrate that he had no control over access to the King of the Jews. There was a much more gracious and all embracing kingdom about to be ushered in, one that would replace Herod’s diminishing precinct.
Nowadays, we use the word epiphany to refer to a revelation or an eye-opening and life-changing religious experience. Such revelations of the divine often come in the most ordinary of experiences – the birth of a baby, a chance meeting with a friend or stranger who makes a deep impression on us, a book we read or a film we see. We come away from the experience changed, with a desire and determination to live differently. We get a new insight into who God is and can be for us. We are left with a deep sense of gratitude. Like the magi, we have a desire to keep searching for the truth that will satisfy our incompleteness. We might even find ourselves asking what gifts we have to bring to the manger, to the one who reveals to us the love of God in flesh and blood no different from ours. We may not come with gold and exotic spices. We may have no more than a simple shepherd’s prayer, or a broken and hungry heart, or eager hands to assist wherever they are needed, or a welcome at our family table to a stranger or someone in need. All these and more are an acceptable response to the gift of love and life offered to us by God in the person of Jesus. As we move into a new decade,
Let us go in peace now;
We have brought our gifts to the manger –
and for some of us it was merely our broken selves –
but now, like the shepherds, we must go back to our fields;
like the magi, we must go home another way.
Let us go in peace now;
May this Holy Child guide our steps into another new year
And give us the courage and imagination to give birth to God’s dream.