Visit of the Magi

Next Sunday is the The Epiphany of the Lord in Year A. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Mt 2:1-12)

This passage follows the story of Jesus’ birth (Mt 1) and precedes the inauguration of the public ministry in Mt 3. The gospel passage for Epiphany is part of a narrative structure that includes the escape to Egypt and subsequent return to Nazareth (Mt 2:13-23).  Within this larger text there are four episodes each of which revolves around a place name: Bethlehem, Egypt, Ramah, and Nazareth.  The scenes in the chapter explain how Jesus, Son of David, was born in Bethlehem, was taken to the safety of Egypt, why he did not return to Bethlehem, and how Nazareth came to be his home. Each episode includes an Old Testament quotation that contains the name of a place and shows scriptural fulfillment against the backdrop of the travelogue. The appeal to the Old Testament is part of Matthew’s fulfillment theme showing that the Messiah’s itinerary was guided by the will of God.

This story, peculiar to Matthew, underlines several themes in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus the Messiah. It makes explicit reference to the detailed fulfillment of Scripture, in his place of birth (vv. 5–6), as well as alluding to another Messianic passage (Num. 24:17). It presents Jesus as the true ‘king of the Jews’ (v. 2) in contrast with the unworthy king Herod. It begins to draw a parallel between Moses and Jesus (in the escape and return from Egypt) which will be further developed in the rest of the chapter. And it shows Jesus as the Messiah of all nations, opposed by the leader of the Jewish nation but recognized as the fulfillment of the hopes of the Gentiles.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem – just as the prophets said; Jesus truly is Son of David (cf 1:1). The royal note runs throughout the story. Not only from the birthplace, but also the encounter with dignitaries in the person of King Herod the Great (considered an interloper king) and the magi (not actually kings at all).  The contrasts also percolate with the narrative: to the true King of Israel, born in Bethlehem, come the foreign magi bearing gifts due royalty. This action echoes the Queen of Sheba coming to see David’s son Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-10) as well as text of the future Messiah (Ps 72 and Isa 60).  It also points to the foreign prophet Balaam (Num 23) speaking of the “star’s rising in the east.”

Matthew 1 and its genealogy move in continuity with the OT story. It is here in Matthew 2 that the story is located as a present fulfillment in the world of the first century reader/listener. It is a merging of biblical worlds in which the promises of God to Israel are fulfilled.  It is also a merging of other worlds. It is here that the gentile world begins to come to pay homage to the King of Kings – it is now that God “appears” to them.

This text is the traditional gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany. In Greek epiphaneia derives from the verb “to appear” and means “appearance”, “manifestation”. In classical Greek it was used of the appearance or manifestation of gods.  In Jewish texts (LXX) the word occurs for manifestation of the God of Israel (2 Macc.15:27). In the New Testament the word is not used concerning the birth of Christ or visit of the Magi, but is used to refer once to the revealing of Christ after the resurrection, and five times to refer to the Second Coming.

The traditional use of this text underscores the truth that Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world and quietly sets the stage for the resurrected Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Mt 28:19) to the whole world.

You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

And if you are interested in another take on the identity of the Magi, take a moment and read another one of my posts: “What we thought we knew.”

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