The Magi: History & Meaning (1/2)

St. Matthew (Matthew 2:1-12) 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.

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 theearth 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 ofthese 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.

Source: The Catholic Understanding of the Bible (by John A. Hardon S.J.)


2 thoughts on “The Magi: History & Meaning (1/2)

  1. Pingback: The Eleventh Day of Christmas….Tree still up « From the C-Sweet

  2. Pingback: A Troubled Herod, Wise Magi, And A Triumphant Christ, Pastor Phil Sessa « He Has Magnified His Word

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