The Magi: History & Meaning (2/2)

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.

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


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

  1. Pingback: There Will Always Be Rulers Who Will Suppress the Truth « A View from the Nest

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

  3. Pingback: Plans | Quality of Life MinistriesQuality of Life Ministries

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