We Have Seen His Star

Solemnity of the Epiphany Scripture Readings

Until now, we’ve been following the story of Jesus’s birth through the eyes of Saint Luke the Evangelist. We’ve seen the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the cave, the wrapping in swaddling clothes and laying in the manger. We’ve seen the shepherds and heard the angels. We’ve seen Joseph and Mary, pondering all these things in her heart. Would it surprise you to learn that, in Matthew’s gospel narrative, there are none of these things? Instead, Matthew presents us with a genealogy showing in great detail how, through Joseph’s lineage, Jesus is a direct descendent of King David. For the Jewish people to whom Matthew was writing, this was a critical detail. As we can see also in today’s gospel text, the Messiah could only be a descendent of David and born in David’s native city of Bethlehem. Yet, for Matthew, the birth of the Messiah was so unimportant that he didn’t give it even a full sentence. He writes, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod…” That’s it. That’s all he wrote—at least on the subject of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s focus was on something other than the birth of the Messiah. The first incident in the life of the infant Jesus that he narrates for us is the coming of the magi. Who were these people? Our best guess takes us to the East, to Persia. The principal religion at that time was Zoroastrianism—the worship of Mazda, the god of light. The priests of this religion were well-versed in the study of astronomical bodies, and they practiced a form of astrology—reading the signs of the times from sidereal movements and events. There was also a widespread belief in many cultures that people were given a star at their birth. These priests—these magi—would have been especially sensitive to the appearance of anything unusual in the heavens. What was it that they saw? Scientists are unsure. One possibility is that there was a brilliant conjunction of Jupiter and Venus at about that time.  Regardless of what it was that they actually saw, no one was better trained to see and interpret such an event than these men.

Why would Matthew have seen the arrival of these magi as such a significant event in itself that he would make it central to his narration of the Nativity? One factor to be taken into consideration was that it seemed to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah that we read as our first reading. It’s an important prophecy because it foretells the coming of a Messianic King to whom would come the pagan nations—the Gentiles. The passage even speaks of gifts brought to him of gold and frankincense—symbols of royalty and divinity. All that’s missing is the myrrh, which was an ointment used in embalming, which Matthew might have added with one eye on the crucifixion. At the same time, since we understand that the gospel writers were concerned less about historical accuracy than providing the meaning of certain events, we have to ask: is Matthew reporting the details of an historical event, or is he trying to tell the story in such a way as to imply that the magi were the fulfillment of the prophecy? For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter.

What seems to stand out with the greatest importance for Matthew was, first of all, that Jesus was the Messiah and secondly that it was the Gentiles that first recognized him and sought him out. This wouldn’t have been lost on Matthew’s Jewish readers, and they would have been scandalized. Remember that the Gentiles were not only considered foreigners and heathens, but they were also despised as unclean because they didn’t keep the Mosaic law. When we read this gospel passage, we can almost imagine that Matthew, a Jewish person himself, seems to be ridiculing his own people. It’s as if he were saying, “You claim to have been anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah, but when he arrived, you not only didn’t recognize him, but the Gentile world did. What’s the matter with you, people of Israel?

When we read the gospels, we see that all the evangelists witnessed the breaking open of the closed system that Judaism had created for itself at the time and the transference, as it were, of God’s promises from the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the people of the outside world. Even Saint John wrote, “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” [John 1:11-12] Throughout the Christian Scriptures we see the same thing: the religiously privileged and arrogant are left behind and wind up bereft of what they thought they had, while the religiously despised and overlooked not only received the fruits of God’s love, but they clung for dear life to what they received.

Today’s gospel is truly an epiphany—the truth of who God is and of his interactions with humankind are made clearly manifest. God does, in fact, play favorites. God favors the anawim, his little ones, the poor in spirit. God “casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly.” [Luke 1:52] It was Matthew, after all, who quoted Jesus as saying, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” [20:16] God comes with his saving power, not to those who think themselves worthy and expect it, but to those who, like the magi, seek him with all their heart and soul and mind and strength.

We who seek the Lord are not promised an easy time of it. Nobody said the journey of the magi was an easy one. On the contrary, becoming a seeker opens us up to vast insecurity in this secular world of ours. Like Jesus himself, we aren’t given a pass to avoid pain, suffering, loss, and even death. There is no escape from these things. The path we must follow as humans passes through these things for believers and unbelievers, for the powerful and the destitute. The difference lies not in the sufferings we must endure, but in how we endure it. Unlike the self-important and self-satisfied, we seekers know that our God is found in the seeking. Like the magi, we’re given the wisdom to see and understand that God goes through everything we must endure with us —both the painful and the joyful. He provides us with the vision of the resurrection and the grace to trust in it and in him. We, the magi of the twenty-first century, seek the Lord, our Messiah and Savior. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

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