Gospel for January 3rd, 2016: “The Visit of the Magi”
Matthew 2: 1-12
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, 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 King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
In the process of writing these blogs I am learning to pay attention to details that I had previously taken for granted in gospel passages that are familiar. This one successfully penetrated the distraction of the Santa-centric Christmases of my childhood enough so that this mission of homage from the three Eastern kings or wise men is part of the landscape of my Christmas memories. In addition, the ubiquitous Nativity imagery at Christmas usually includes their presence, therefore these rather mysterious figures do not seem like strangers as I read this gospel. Perhaps they should. As I look with fresh eyes, their behavior is incredibly strange by both ancient and modern standards.
Matthew is trying to draw our attention to the strangeness of their journey in the first line by using the word “behold” before providing the plot detail that “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’” (1). Behold comes from the Greek word “ide,” which means be sure to see what follows. Mystical wise men from the East don’t typically show up in the first century Jerusalem inquiring about the King of the Jews. And if this happened in any major city today, it would be newsworthy despite being met with stubborn skepticism by most everyone. This was indeed a phenomenon that moved these learned men to take what must have been a very difficult journey which was so mysterious their only map for guidance was a star in the sky. I find myself humbled by this leap of faith. I am not at a point in my own spiritual journey that I could have done it. Imagine the conversations with friends and family. How many times were they called crazy? How many skeptics asked them, what if you are wrong and don’t make it home? These are men of faith on par with the greatest prophets of the Old Testament and saints of the history of the Church. They dropped everything for Jesus.
With this renewed understanding of their mission and its radicalness, I want to dwell on one other detail, while skipping over the intrigue with Herod and his attempts to use them to find and destroy the threat presented by the “newborn king of the Jews.” Instead I wish to consider the reaction of the Magi on arrival. It must not have been what they expected when the star led them to a stable for livestock. Disappointment would have only been natural at this humble setting for the Messiah. However, their behavior is marked again by radically strange intensity in their adoration. Matthew tells us, “… on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (11). In other words, they immediately lay on the ground in reverence before this baby. I don’t think one can fake that level of reverence, especially at that moment when anyone who had doubts would have started by asking a lot of questions. No, they lay down before the Messiah. I have never prostrated myself to anyone in my life. Yes, I kneel in Church humbly and gratefully, but this is behavior I struggle to comprehend.
So for me, the lesson of this classic Christmas gospel is to open my heart and mind to the radical strangeness of authentic Christian worship. I acknowledge I still struggle with a fear of being seen as weird by others in how I integrate the central role of Christ into my life. Ultimately, I must be willing to be unusual in the eyes of others to live righteously in the eyes of the Lord, as the Magi so clearly do in their fearless pilgrimage to and worship of Jesus. So much of what Jesus’s Word and His Church ask me to do are strange to non-Christians and secularized Christians. Therein lies so much of the challenge of living the faith in a secular society. Am I willing to be different? This gospel would suggest it is the wise choice. In the end, the wisdom of the Magi is not the wisdom of the world, but rather divinely inspired wisdom.