Reading the biblical texts for today can round off the accounts of Jesus’ birth. The Magi come to worship the newly born king, which the liturgy sees as the world beyond the Chosen People of Israel joining the Chosen People of God. The idea of the two root words of ‘epi-phany’ is the ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’ of a superior being. Today celebrates Jesus revealed as the saviour for all humankind.
This reading is from the later parts of the book which collects various prophets who chose to be part of the tradition begun with Isaiah of Jerusalem. It reminded the people who returned from exile in Babylon that their destiny was not only to rebuild Jerusalem for the Hebrew people but as a source of life for peoples far beyond their boundaries. Christians have seen this as fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus spreading around the globe.
Psalm 71/72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-13
This psalm has verses which lead to identifying the Magi as kings, but the real emphasis is on the ideal king of David’s line and the righteousness of his kingdom, one who cares for the poor and oppressed. This is the kind of king Christ is, one of justice and concern for the ‘least of all’.
Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
St Paul, after a reminder of his special role as ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, clearly states the meaning of this feast as a revelation for all who did not inherit the Jewish faith.
Matthew’s story is a familiar one at Christmas time, a source of numerous paintings and greeting cards and there may be a temptation to pass over it quickly. One point I notice in paying closer attention is the diligence of the ‘wise men’ who first see the star and draw a conclusion as to its meaning. After this revelation, they want to show a recognition of the importance of the new-born ruler. We don’t know the length of their travel, the difficulties may be guessed, but as they reach Jerusalem they naturally expect a King to be born in the capital city and make enquiries at the top of the government. The exaggeration of ‘all Jerusalem’ is like the generalities of a country by its rulers – reporting for example, the reaction ‘of England’ as meaning an official response. Herod, who was not a religious leader, calls in experts in the scriptures who find the text pointing to Bethlehem. It was the ancestral home of David, but not a great city at the time. Matthew uses the words ‘not the least’ instead of the text saying it was insignificant, to indicate it had a different kind of greatness as the birthplace of the coming perfect ruler. Herod is disturbed that his own rule will be disrupted and lies to the Magi so that they will report to him and he can dispose of any child offering even a future threat to his own power.
The miraculous nature of the ‘star’ guides them to the exact house where Jesus is now, Matthew here does not mention Joseph and the picture is of a tiny baby nursed by his mother. The three gifts echo the responsorial psalm’s gold and frankincense and add myrrh. All three are ‘luxury gifts’ as R T France notes in his commentary on Matthew. Because myrrh is used in the burial of Jesus (see John 19:40) it has been seen also as a reminder of mortality, and a hint of Jesus’ as a saviour who dies for us.
Dreams play an important role in Matthew for guiding Joseph, but now it is the Magi who are ‘warned’ not to trust Herod and obey his command to give him the information of the baby king’s whereabouts. The reading today ends without Herod’s actions, which are frustrated when a dream tells Matthew to take Mary and Jesus, flee Herod and seek refuge in Egypt.
Our world is full of refugees now from various forms of danger and tyranny, and thus another part of our humanity that Jesus came to redeem. Pope Francis has been calling for care and concern for all those now sharing the kind of flight that was necessary to save Jesus from dying as a baby before his life’s work. That kind of action – instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh – can be a modern offering suitable to our ‘Shepherd King’.