The traditional biblical eye-openers on God are the Star of Bethlehem, leading the Wise Men to worship Jesus… But what is it our eyes are opened to see? The Wise men are gentiles, so God’s revelation is for all people.
– Brian Mountford “University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford”
The readings for The Epiphany of the Lord cycle B (Matthew 2:1-12) can be found here.
The Near East Babylonian religions believed that there was a connection between observable phenomenon of heavenly bodies and events on Earth. This is commonly referred to as astral determinism or astral fatalism.
The practitioners of astral determinism believed that events were destined to occur and only required to be interpreted properly. When Matthew’s Gospel was written this religious practice was still being observed.
The magi in the Gospel story represented practitioners of astral determinism. The magi interpreted the Bethlehem star to portend the birth of a king. There was one key piece of the interpretive puzzle missing. To solve this they needed Jewish scripture.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Mid′ian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
– Isaiah 60:6
But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
– Micah 5:2
The scripture scholar will tell you that Matthew did not tell us how many magi came from the east. There may have been 2 or 22, but the number really does not matter. As a child I would have liked to have seen more magi in the crèche at our home, because I liked to rearrange the figures.
What does matter is the magi were not Jewish and had seen the signs. They followed the star seeking the king. They needed the help of the Jewish scriptures to understand how to interpret the signs so they could find Him, worship and pay homage. The magi represent the gentile members of the Matthean community seeking Christ.
This was to show that the message of Jesus was meant for all people, not just the Jewish people.
We know, from the story in Matthew, that the Herodians, Pharisees, and scribes had not seen the signs but did review the scriptures and interpreted the signs to mean a new king was born in Bethlehem. They made the conscious decision not to accompany the magi to worship and pay homage to the new king. These Jewish groups represent the synagogue leaders who were kicking Matthew’s community out of the synagogue.
The synagogue leaders were Jewish people who had heard the message of Jesus but were unwilling to accept this message. Christianity threatened their traditions and Matthew’s community were no longer welcome.
Unlike the the crèche, with the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by sheep and oxen, Matthew tells us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem in a standard dwelling that we will call their house. The house represents the church where Christians gather to worship.
In the houses of Matthew’s community all who seek Jesus were invited in to worship as part of the Christian community, just as Mary and Joseph invited in the magi.
Once we understand the symbolism of the story the message becomes clear.
Jesus’ message is universal and not for a select group. Those groups who were traditionally considered outsiders only need to seek Jesus and are welcomed to worship with the Christian community.
Those stiff-necked groups who are fearful of change, hold tight to their traditions at any cost, and feel that outsiders have nothing to contribute will miss out on the redemptive power of Jesus.
Ancient stories are great, but how is the story of the magi reflected in our lives today?
Think about the story this way. Is there a group of people considered to be outsiders, with nothing to contribute, who are asking to worship Jesus in our Christian communities? I bet we all know groups like this.
Perhaps we open our doors to these groups, like the Holy Family did for the magi?
Perhaps we stubbornly hold to our traditions, fear change and turn our noses up on these groups, like the Herodians, Pharisees and scribes?
The teaching of Jesus is clear regarding how we should treat others.
In terms of gender, the magi find Mary in the house, named and at the center of the scene. So too, implies the story, visited by the liberating wisdom of Christ, the church should realign old patriarchal patterns of relationship that marginalize women and move to partnership in the following of Christ.
– Elizabeth A. Johnson “Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints” p. 242
If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that there is no group asking to be allowed to worship Jesus that could be further outside orthodox belief than the magi. Yet, they were permitted to pay homage. We must strive to emulate this in our communities.
Every person has gifts that can be shared within the believing community and we represent Christ if we embrace them with love. In this way we represent Christ to the world.
The star is overhead and the magi are ready to lead us to Jesus. All we have to do is journey with them.
Come, let us go to Bethlehem, that we may worship the king.
– R. Alan Culpepper “Advent Through Transfiguration, Year A, Volume 9”