The Magi

In his Gospel, Matthew is showing us far more than the Magi´s discovery of Christ. He is also sharing everyone else´s lack of recognition of the Christ-child as the Messiah.
by Rev. Edward T. Dowling, S.J. | Source:
“Epiphany” is a Greek word meaning “revelation.” What we celebrate is the fact that God for the first time revealed himself to the Gentile or non-Jewish world in the person of the Magi. It often comes as a shock to Americans to learn that in many parts of the world Epiphany is more highly esteemed than Christmas. In the Eastern Churches, in much of western Europe, and most of Latin America, Epiphany is celebrated with greater joy than elsewhere in recognition of the fact that Jesus was not only born among us but chose to share the fullness of that revelation with the Gentile or non-Jewish world. Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, is also the time for giving gifts in many parts of the world, in imitation of the wise men.

In the Gospel, Matthew first celebrates the accomplishment and reward of the Magi. He goes to great pains to show how the Magi were yearning for God, searching nature and the heavens for signs; how they left everything, to follow a star in the hope it would lead them to God or his envoy; how they accepted the advice of foreigners willingly in pursuing their quest and even trusted the Scripture of another culture and creed. In short, he shows the Magi doing all they can, naturally speaking, to find God.

By way of contrast, Matthew then presents the behavior of his own people. He does this with a series of uncomplimentary comparisons to the wise men who with no history of revelation to help them made great efforts to find Jesus. First Matthew shows us King Herod, successor of David, shepherd of Israel. When Herod hears of the King of the Jews, he thinks not of adoration or leading his people to him. He thinks only of murder, to destroy the child and keep him from his throne. Next Matthew tells us of the priests and scribes, the religious leaders. They are well versed in Scripture and know where the Messiah will be born; Bethlehem, as predicted by the prophet Micah (5:2). But their hearts are cold and completely indifferent. They make no effort to find the child personally. Lastly, Matthew shows us the ordinary people. The city of Jerusalem, the capital of the country, home to the best and the brightest in the land, is also indifferent. Though Bethlehem is less than ten miles away, the people make no effort to go and look for the Messiah. Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, then, while filled with joy over the faith of the Holy Family and the wise men, is nonetheless tinged with sadness due to the hostility and indifference of the chosen people themselves.

As an author, Matthew also uses this story which is a key opening scene in his Gospel to frame a key closing scene in the Gospel. Like a symphony that starts with a theme that is then repeated with different variations through the work until it explodes fully developed at the end, bringing the symphony together as a unity, Matthew uses a title to unite his Gospel and bring it together so that the opening story enlightens the ending and the end of the Gospel enriches the beginning.

One of the first titles Matthew records for Jesus at the start of the Gospel is “King of the Jews,” and ironically it is given him by non-Jews, the Magi. As we saw in Matthew’s earlier description, the Jewish world represented by King Herod, the religious leaders, and the ordinary people of Jerusalem, put no stock in the title at all. At the end of the Gospel Matthew uses the same title tellingly again. It appears over the cross of Jesus: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And again, ironically, it is given to Jesus by a non-Jew, this time by Pilate, the Roman procurator. Matthew also employs a parallel cast of characters to show how his fellow countrymen have continued to deny Jesus his rightful title. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mt 27:11). The chief priests and the elders accuse him, and the crowd rejects him in favor of Barabbas. When the soldiers mock Jesus, they say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mt 27:29). After Jesus is crucified, the priests, scribes, and elders say, “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Mt 27:42).

We can now better understand how carefully the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel has been orchestrated to coordinate with the end of the Gospel. With the simple use of the title “King of the Jews,” Matthew ties his Gospel together and shows the Jewish people how at all levels of society they failed at both the beginning and the end of the Public Life of Jesus to accept him as King and Messiah. The Magi who were never blessed with a history of revelation or God’s personal intervention on their behalf, on the other hand, had no such difficulty and, irony of ironies, the pagan Roman procurator ends up trying to save Jesus from his very own people.

Matthew has taken a tough stand. He wrote at a time when Jewish religious leaders were persecuting the Church and excommunicating from the synagogues all who believed in Jesus. Still he writes more in disappointment than criticism. As a Jew himself, writing primarily for a Jewish audience, he wants more than anything else to lead his fellow countrymen, even shame them with the truth if necessary, into accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Hence he simply reminds his cherished people they have twice missed a chance to accept Jesus and he hopes they will reconsider in light of the whole Gospel message.

Reprinted with permission by St. Pauls. Rev. Edward T. Dowling is the author of Have You Heard the Good News: Cycle A published by St. Pauls.

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