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The Visitation of the Magi

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Matthew is the only evangelist who gives us the full details of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Once again, the full quotation is lengthy but it is worth giving in full. There are so many implications for our faith and spiritual life that we should hear all the twelve verses of the evangelist describing the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.’ But when King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and so was all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and Scribes of the People, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, ‘in Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Juda, art by no means least among the princes of Juda; for from thee shall come forth a leader who shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly, and carefully ascertained from them the time when the star had appeared to them. And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, ‘Go and make careful inquiry concerning the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and worship him.’
Now they, having heard the king, went their way. And behold, the star that they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was. And when they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly. And entering the house they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshipped him. And opening their treasures they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

The profane Greek word magos has four different meanings. It can be a member of the Persian priestly caste, one who possesses occult knowledge or power, a magician or a charlatan. Christian tradition identifies the Magi as specially gifted Orientals who had the ability to understand the secret powers of nature. One thing is certain, they were not magicians or astrologers. From the sixth century of the Christian era, they were identified as kings. The basis for this belief is the prophesy of the psalmist who foretold, “The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Saba shall pay tribute. All the kings of the earth shall adore him” (Ps. 72:10).

Over the centuries there have been many speculations as to what kind of luminous body appeared in the sky which inspired the Magi to come to Bethlehem. After all the speculations are examined, we may safely say that the star which the Magi saw was a miraculous intervention by God. Among the Jews, the coming of the Messiah was the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophesy “a star rises out of Jacob and a scepter is lifted up from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

What is most remarkable is that when the Magi came to Jerusalem, their arrival stirred up the whole city. King Herod was terrified when his agents warned him of these strangers from the East who were looking for another king of the Jews. By then Herod had escaped so many plots against his life that he had reason to fear. Was this a new secret rival? That is why he summoned all the princes of the priests the guardians of Jewish tradition and the Scribes, who were the authorized interpreters of Scripture. He asked them where was the expected Messiah to be born? They all replied it was in Bethlehem of Juda. As the original Hebrew foretells, “And you, Bethlehem, Ephrata, little among the clans of Juda, from you shall come forth to me the one who shall rule over Israel” (Michea 5:2).

Once Herod learned that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he summoned the Magi and dismissed them. Then, deceiver that he was, he told them to strive earnestly to find the child and when they had found Him to return to Herod so that he too could worship the Promised One of Israel.

Once more the star they had seen in the East appeared before them. It stopped exactly where the child was. The literal translation of the evangelist tells us that, “They found the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees they adored Him. Then they opened their treasures and offered Him their gifts, gold, incense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:9-10).

It may seem strange to us Western people that the Magi brought gifts for the Christ child. But the Oriental custom was and is to never pay a visit to a superior without offering gifts. They brought what was then considered the most precious products of their country. Incense and myrrh were then the principal products of Arabia. Gold also was abundant among them. Strange to say it could then be exchanged at ridiculous prices.

There is a profound symbolism behind the gifts which the Magi brought. One ancient ecclesiastical writer says, “they offered gold, incense and myrrh to Christ the king, their God, and man.” St. Irenaeus explains, “they offered to Him who is to die, gold to Him whose kingdom will never end, incense to the God of the Jews who is now manifesting Himself to the Gentiles.”

King Herod had hoped to deceive the Magi. Nothing would have prevented him from ridding himself of a rival, even if this rival was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. The idea of a general massacre of all the newborn children around Bethlehem was not foreign to his treachery. But he hoped to avoid a slaughter if he could find and kill the one Child who threatened his royalty.

We know what happened. Before the Magi went back to Jerusalem, as Herod had asked them to, they were warned by an angel to return to their home country by another route. As a result, the life of the Christ child was saved, but only because another angel told Joseph to take Mary and her son and fly immediately to Egypt. The Holy Family remained in Egypt until the death of King Herod.

So far we have seen something of the remarkable event that we now commemorate on the feast of the Epiphany. Volumes have been written on the implications of the visit of the Magi to the newborn infant who came into the world to redeem a fallen human race.

There are two lessons that the visit of the Magi are meant to teach us. The first is that, by their coming to visit the Christ child they revealed God’s plan of salvation, to include not only the chosen people of Israel but the whole of mankind, including the Gentiles. The second lesson is the hard one. No sooner was Christ born, than the civil power vested in King Herod sought to destroy Christianity at its very beginnings. This has been the pattern of Christian history for twenty centuries.

The Magi Symbolize the Gentiles

All that we know from the Old Testament, tells us that the Jewish people were chosen by Yahweh to be the heralds of God’s revealed truth to the whole world. From Abraham on, the prophets foretold how the Jewish nation would spread to the far ends of the earth. When the Messiah came, they would proclaim His teaching to the rest of the world.

As we know, most of the Jewish people left Palestine and moved to as far as northern Scotland and South Africa by the seventh century before Christ. Called the Jews of the diaspora, they were to remain faithful to the heritage they had received from the patriarchs and prophets. They were to remain faithful to the one true God and, when the Messiah came, they were to spread His message of salvation to the far ends of the globe.

But we also know what happened. In one century after another, the Chosen People became unfaithful to their marvelous heritage. As a result, they were taken over by hostile nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians, like the Egyptians and finally the Romans. Their years of captivity by these pagan overlords was God’s way of waking them up to their exalted dignity.

The last captivity of the Jewish people was under the Romans. It was in this situation that the Messiah came into the world. The very fact that He was born in Bethlehem was because the Roman emperor Augustus decreed that everyone was to go to his place of origin to be registered. Shrewdly the Romans allowed the Jews to keep their political sovereignty intact, but in name only. Herod was a king, but only with a nominal royalty.

The coming of the Magi was also the evening of the Jewish people. Their centuries of disloyalty to the laws given to them by God through Moses and the prophets was now to be repaid by divine justice.

It is not only that Herod, the nominal king of the Jews, sought to destroy what he considered his rival. It was the divine revelation of the beginning of a new era in revealed history. The Magi represented the rest of the human race for whom God became Incarnate and was born as a speechless child in Bethlehem. A generation later, St. Paul would try to convert his own people to accept Jesus as the Messiah. A handful accepted Jesus Christ. But the majority refused to believe. St. Paul therefore, under divine inspiration, decided to turn to the Gentiles. Their openness to Christ’s teaching was nothing less than miraculous. By the end of the first century of Christianity, there were over one hundred dioceses along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Herod Symbolizes the State

The deepest meaning of the visit of the Magi has yet to be seen. Coming from the Gentile world, in search of the king of the Jews, they naturally went to the palace of King Herod to find out where the new monarch of the Jewish people was born. Of course the Magi came to Herod in good faith. It was not only a star in the heavens but nothing less than a special, even mystical inspiration which led them to Palestine in search of the Messiah.

Little did they know what fear they inspired in Herod’s heart when he heard that a new king of the Jews had come into the world. They were told to go to Bethlehem. But remember, Herod himself had to ask the Jewish leaders where the Messiah was to be born. He did not know. In fact, he did not want to know. When the priests and scribes told him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, you would expect them to be the first ones to go to Bethlehem and discover this infant whom the prophets had foretold.

Herod’s reaction to the information he received about the place where the Messiah was to be born is nothing less than a profound mystery. From Herod on until Good Friday, the story of Jesus Christ was the same. The political powers in what we have come to call the Holy Land were in open opposition to the Savior of the world.

No sooner did Christ come into the world than He had to be taken out of Palestine, in the dead of night, to escape the murderous envy of the tyrant Herod.

When Herod died, Jesus returned to where He had been conceived at Nazareth. We commonly speak of His thirty years of hidden life at Nazareth. Not so. It was not a hidden life but a life in hiding. Christ had to remain in secret seclusion for three decades in order to avoid the envious hatred from a hostile political power.

No sooner did Jesus begin His public ministry than He aroused the hostility of the leaders of the Chosen People. They allowed Him less than three years to proclaim His message of salvation during what we call His public ministry. The very miracles that He performed were the last straw. No sooner did He raise the dead Lazarus from the grave than the Scribes and Pharisees decided on appealing to the State to have the Author of life crucified.

What happened at Christ’s birth has been going on for the past twenty centuries. It will continue during all the centuries of Christian history until the end of time.

Our own country is a tragic example of what this means. We commonly, but erroneously, speak of separation of Church and State in America. Not really. It is rather subordination of Church to State. The interests of the State are paramount, and the Church dare not compete with these interests at the risk of being opposed and, if necessary, being destroyed by the State.

As the State successfully pursues its aims, it cannot on principle allow the Catholic Church to threaten its political supremacy.

Again as the State becomes more secularized, that is more worldly, it considers the Catholic Church to be its greatest threat. Why? Because the Church believes that human beings exist indeed in this world but their destiny is in a heavenly eternity in union with God.

In the defense of its secular interests, the State feels compelled to resist what it considers rival competitors, by ignoring their interests, by dulling their influence and, if necessary suppressing their rights. Among these competitors in our country, the Catholic Church is considered the arch-rival of the secularized State.

The State can achieve this result, either directly by executive mandate, by restrictive legislation or judicial decision; or indirectly by encouraging such domestic rivalry within the Catholic Church as to weaken if not erase her effective impact on the State.

So the litany of subordination of Church to State goes on. It all began with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. It reached its climax during Christ’s visible stay on earth when Pilate condemned the Savior to a merciless death on Calvary. It is going on in one nation after another, including our own beloved United States.

Just one closing observation. Nothing ever happened in the life of Christ during His visible stay on earth that was not meant for all times. Epiphany means “manifestation.” The first Epiphany was the manifestation of how Jesus Christ had to escape to Egypt to keep from being murdered by Herod. To this day, the Epiphany manifests how the followers of Christ are treated by those who wield political power in opposition to the teachings of Christ.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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