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The visit of the Magi

Gospel Reading: Mt 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; since 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.

Scholars point out that the visit of the Magi and other birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not meant to give a blow-byblow account that we expect of news reporting in our time. Rather, these accounts, while based on some historical details, are told to tell us who Jesus is. They are meant to dramatize the conception and birth of Jesus, the Messiah who is God’s Son.

In telling the birth of the Messiah, Matthew combines both historical facts and theological insights. He draws from two main sources: from the accounts of the Old Testament or Jewish sources and from images anticipated from the Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry. He is a scribe “who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52).

How does this work in the story of the Magi? The most likely background is the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24). Fearful of the Israelites, King Balak of Moab summons this occult visionary from the east to curse Israel. Now this seer ends up blessing the Israelites instead. In ecstasy, he sees that “a star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Nm 24:17).

Scholars suggest that this oracle speaks of the emergence of the Davidic dynasty: David is the star and the scepter ruling over the kingdom of Judah and Israel. Now, Matthew tells the story of the Magoi like Balaam who speak of the star of the newborn king of the Jews: Jesus, the Messiah of the house of David. Other details point to the story of Jesus that is anticipated at his birth.

The Jewish rulers, as represented by Herod and his cohort, refuse to believe in Jesus and persecute him. Israel, in general, does not recognize the day of “their visitation” by God in Jesus. But the Gentiles accept the Gospel when it is preached to them. The Magi represent the Gentile worshipers in Matthew’s community. One other observation: the star symbolizes the revelation of God in nature.

God can be known and can be understood in the things that he has made (cf Rom 1:20). Creation can lead us to Jesus. But to know him as the Messiah, we must be directed to him by a special revelation: God’s word in Sacred Scriptures. What does the story of the Magi tell us? We are a people granted the grace to honor Jesus as God and man. We see the manifestation of God’s goodness and salvation in nature and in Scriptures.

We approach and pay homage to Jesus now in the Eucharist and bring him gifts related to spirituality and ordinary life. Then we return to our own homes happy for what we have seen and heard. This truth is as wonderful as any fairy tale.

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SOURCE: “365 Days with the Lord,” ST PAULS, 7708 St. Paul Rd., SAV, Makati City (Phils.); Tel.: 895-9701; Fax 895-7328; E-mail: publishing@stpauls.ph; Website: http://www.stpauls.ph.