The Magi
Continuation of the commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew

Anthony Zimmerman
February 3, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

In Chapter two, Saint Matthew relates the story of the visit to Jesus by wise men of the east, and of the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family. The Church celebrates the event on the Feast of Epiphany as the revelation of Jesus to the entire world, not merely to the Israelites. The solemn chant of the Entrance Song of Epiphany expresses immense joy on the part of the Church: Ecce, advenit dominator Dominus: "Behold, the Lord, the Ruler, is come." The Jews had expected that the Messiah would be their national champion, but Jesus immediately dispelled that narrow idea by inviting gentiles to visit Him. That Jesus is the Savior of the entire human race is a matter of immense importance to all of us. But to the first generation of the members of the Church this was still unexplored territory at the beginning. Eventually it became a hot button question which precipitated the calling together of the First Council of Jerusalem.

All of the first followers of Christ were or Jewish origin, of course. The Acts of the Apostles relate the dramatic story how Christ, through Peter, guided the initially reluctant Church to welcome the gentiles into her communion. After that victory was won, a second great battle took place, namely whether the gentiles should be obliged to practice all the Jewish religious practices, the laws of the Sabbath, prohibitions against eating pork, frequent washing of hands, laws about what is clean and unclean. If the hard-liner Judaizers had won out, all the rigorous practices so jealously insisted upon by the Pharisees would have severely hindered the spread of the early Church in and outside of the Roman Empire. The Feast of Epiphany, then, marks the turning point when Christianity burst out of the narrow confines of Judaism and became the world religion.

Saint Arnold Janssen, Founder of the missionary Society of the Divine Word, the Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit, and cloistered Missionary Sisters of Adoration, arranged that the Feast of Epiphany be celebrated most solemnly in these missionary families. It is a day when his spiritual heirs spend extra time in fervent prayer for the spread of the faith on a global basis.

The Call of the Magi

Matthew customarily uses language that is stately and solemn, very well adapted for use in the Liturgy. The rhythm of the prose marches along somewhat as a caravan of camels walking step by step along a desert road. The ancient Gregorian Chant for the Mass even features musical rhythms that sway along like the rhythmic pace of marching camels. Matthew tells the story how wise men of the east had sighted a star that revealed to them the birth of the long-awaited King of the Jews:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him" (Mt 2:1-2).

The wise men came from the east. They were not Jews but outsiders, gentiles as Jews thought of them. Was it from Arabia, or was it from Mesopotamia, where Bagdad is situated today? Probably from the Bagdad area of the time, known as a land where astrologers were highly regarded. The text reflects a popular belief that each person is represented by a star which appears at the time of that person's birth (see The Jerome Biblical Commentary p. 67).

What astonishes us is that God had shone a special ray of grace into the hearts and minds of these people of the East, a mysterious action by which God gave them sound faith in Christ. Although they had never seen Christ, they were enabled to believe in Him. They saw the star, they believed that a new king was born in the land of Judea. Not only did they believe that He was a king, they also came to give Him the worship of adoration, an act which is directed only to God. They came with a firm belief that He was a King who was more than human, who was One to whom they will offer adoration, to be symbolized by a gift of frankincense. The star they saw with human eyes. The adoration they offered was of divine inspiration. it was a gift from above. They prepared gifts, gold to offer to a king, frankincense to offer to God, myrrh for His burial, recognizing his dual nature as man and God.

Did not the neighbors of the Magi see the same sky with the special star? Did the Jews not also see it? Here the Bible teaches how faith is a gift of God, a precious election by God given to those whom He invites to a new personal relationship of friendship. Multitudes of others must have seen the same sky and the same star, but believed nothing about its meaning. Truly, faith is a gift of God, not a psychological entity that we can produce of ourselves. Humbly, we thank God every day for the faith that He shines into our hearts.

I am reminded at this point, sadly, that we can also lose our faith when God no longer shines it into our hearts. There was a missionary here in Japan some years ago who apparently lost his faith, for what reason I do not know. Because of this he was preparing to leave Japan and return to Germany, his native land. Before his departure, a confrere invited him kindly to just visit the chapel, to kneel down a short minute and recite the Our Father. "No use," he said, refusing to do so. So he glumly left the monastery building and went down to the train station of Tajimi, Japan, to leave the country because he was no longer able to teach the faith to others, a faith that he himself had lost. A mystery!

Now back to the Magi. The star told them that a great personage was born. Perhaps the wise men also knew of the prophecy that Balaam had made1400 years before. Balaam made the mysterious prophecy that a great person would some day be born in the nation of Israel. Enlightened by God he peered into the future and proclaimed with resounding solemnity:

"The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near -- a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:15-17).

Balaam was a widely known prophet of his day, and it should not surprise us greatly if the Magi had learned about this famous prediction. In fact, the Magi may have been natives of the same land as that of Balaam of Peor. Balaam had prophesied that "a star shall rise out of Israel." So to Israel it was that the Magi began their journey.

The journey would be long and arduous, a distance of about 900 miles as the crow flies. They likely followed the crescent route northwest along the River Euphrates to Haran, where Abram had first settled after leaving Ur in Chaldea. From Haran they would turn first westward to Aleppo, and having arrived there, turn onto the south-west to Damascus, and from there to the mountain fortress of the Holy City, Jerusalem. It was a long journey for them, all the while nurturing in their hearts the faith that the Lord shone in their hearts.

Did they quarrel along the way? When sandstorms blinded them, did some complain as the Israelites had done when marching out of Egypt? The Israelites had grumbled to Moses: "Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Exodus 16:3).

Did the wise men battle with hardships, weariness and nagging doubts? The Lord had connected the light of faith with their view of the star, but the text says nothing that the star shone for them in the sky continuously during their long journey to Jerusalem. Faith must keep their hopes alive, without seeing the fleeting star.

Only faith in their hearts kept them going, the light of grace that shone there, a faith that they nourished in each other anew when rising in the morning and when gathering around the fireside at night. During the heat of day their lips were parched, their bones ached, food and water were rationed, camels sometimes turned cranky or even nasty. At 30 miles per day the journey would last about one month.

Their long and arduous journey is a picture of our own journey through life as we meet with daily hardships and experiences, struggling always to make the events of life nurture the faith in our hearts to fuller maturity. God calls us to to make our journey of faith through life. The call is our personal vocation, and we respond with joy in our hearts at the beginning. But that is not the end of our journey through life. We meet dark nights, we meet storms, we battle with doubts and difficulties. At times one crisis follows after another. "Some times I'm up, sometimes I'm down, Oh yes, Lord! Sometimes I'm almost to the ground. Oh yes Lord!" So the words of the famous spiritual reflecting the ups and downs of life.

The wise men could not know it, but in Bethlehem Jesus was waiting for their arrival. After our journey through life, Jesus will also await our arrival for our encounter with Him; the encounter, namely, that we all look forward to when we emerge out of our bodies and journey with our souls to our new home.