When one examines a Scripture passage, the text can classically be interpreted in 3 ways: Literal (Historical) – Allegorical – Moral (Spiritual).
First, let’s consider some of the first two – the allegorical, as well as the historical, background of the story of the Epiphany found in Matthew 2:1-12 as related by scripture scholar, Hilda Bright in her article, “Matthew’s Good News.”
What was the significance of the town of Bethlehem? In verses 1-2 we are introduced to the town of Bethlehem which means “house of bread”. It is a small town located six miles from Jerusalem. It was originally the home of King David (1 Samuel 16). Suffering under Roman rule during the time of Christ, the Jewish people were expecting a new king who would come from David’s town. This king would be even greater than his ancestor, King David.
Why was Herod so concerned about the birth of Jesus? The Romans allowed Herod to rule as Judea’s king, but being a maniacal, jealous and cruel leader, he was very afraid of losing his power. Herod suspected that some men wanted to be the ruler instead of him. He killed anyone whom he suspected and even murdered three of his own sons as well as his wife whom he thought were plotting against him. The great Roman king, Augustus, once said that it was not safe to be Herod’s son. Augustus said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig.
Who were the “Wise Men”? Where did they come from? Were they really kings? The “wise men” or “magi” in the Greek language, had studied the stars. They probably came from Persia around the area of the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Early Christians often call them “kings” based on Isaiah 60:3 who wrote about the kings who would visit the Lord to give honor to God’s light in Jerusalem. Psalm 72:10-11 also describes “kings” who bring their gifts to a great ruler. Thus the idea of “kings” probably comes from these verses. The Scriptures are actually silent as to whether or not there were actually three of them although “three” in the Sacred Scripture is a symbolic number meaning something perfect (like the Trinity). Thus the Christ child would be revealed to the perfect number of people of the world – both Jewish and Gentile.
What is the significance of the Wise Men visiting Christ? As described in Matthew 2:9-11, these were people from outside of the Jewish faith-tradition. Scripture readings, liturgical traditions, rabbinical teachings would have been totally unfamiliar to these men. Those outside of the faith-tradition needed another way to get to know the birth of Christ, and so his birth is announced to them though nature, astrology and through the stars. The wise men see a special star appear in the sky and begin to follow it, perhaps not knowing exactly to where or to what it would lead. The significance of what – or rather whom- they found would only reveal itself to them later. (See Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s “King Herod and the Wise Men—A Christmas Challenge”)
When did the “Wise Men” arrive? As we read in Luke 2:16, the shepherds had seen the “baby” at the beginning, soon after the birth of Christ. He was in a box where they usually put animal feed. The “Wise Men,” however, arrived in Bethlehem a long time after the birth of Jesus, perhaps even several years later. Matthew says that the Wise Men went into “the house.” There they saw the “child” (not a “baby”) with his mother.
What is the significance of the gifts? The first important detail is that there were three gifts indicating, once again, that the gifts presented to Christ were the perfect gifts. Gold showed that Jesus was a king. Frankincense showed that Jesus was a priest since it was the priests of the Old Testament who offered incense to God when they worshiped him in the Temple. Myrrh was a type of embalming ointment with which the dead were anointed. This gift indicated Jesus’ humanity and, thus that Jesus would eventually die in order to rescue people from their sin and the effects of that sin – in other words, death.
Several of the relevant passages that were alluded to in the Magi story are:
Isaiah 60:5-6: “…The riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of nations come to you; camels in throngs will cover you, and dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of the Lord.”
Psalms, 72:10-11: “The kings of Tarshish and of the islands will pay him tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts; all kings will do him homage…”
Other prophetic texts mention trade in incense and spices, such as Jeremiah 6:20 and Ezekiel 27:22.
Some Scripture scholars point out the timing of the “Wise Men” and their gifts. Soon afterwards, The Holy Family had to flee from Herod’s wrath to Egypt. Such a poor family would never have had the means to attempt such a long journey and to stay in Egypt for any significant length of time. The gifts provided them with the resources to escape and to initially set up their home in Egypt before Joseph could get established with his trade.
In closing, Fr. Rolheiser writes that this is a rich story with several powerful challenges:
Read the Litany of Humility from Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, former Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X. “What is my own reaction to new life, especially to life that threatens me, that will take away some of my own popularity, sunshine, and adulation? Can I, like the wise men, lay my gifts at the feet of Christ and move towards anonymity and eventual death, content that the world is in good hands, even though those hands are not my hands? Or, like Herod, will I feel that life as a threat and I try somehow to kill it, lest its star somehow diminish my own?”
Christ is splendor and light as represented by “The Star.” Is Christ using an “unveiling light” that you might be trying to avoid?
The gifts and the timing of the gifts from the Magi also present an allegory of God’s providence? How was 2014 for you? What was provided? What is yet missing? How is your trust in God’s providence – and more importantly – in God’s timing of that providence, challenging you as you enter 2015?
For Further Study:
FAQs on The Magi can be found here. It answers such questions as:
- What are the “Magi?”
- Why do we call them “Wise Men?”
- Were they actually “kings?”
- How many of them were there?
- Where did they come from?
The documentary, The Star of Bethlehem, explores the scriptures and reveals the evidence for God’s existence as seen in the stars above. The presenter walks through Biblical and historical clues revealing the significance of this celestial event, the vastness of God s creativity, the significance of the Bethlehem Star and its connection to the life of Christ.
Audio version of the homily can be found here: