The Magi arrive and adore

Anthony Zimmerman
February 9, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

While the Magi were on their way, Joseph likely found better living quarters, or he transformed the cave in which Jesus had been born. After all, he was a carpenter by profession, and this would not be the first home that he improved or constructed. Homes in Palestine at the time frequently were a cave built into a hillside, which opened into a building out in front. Mary and Joseph could not know about the imminent coming of the Magi, but Jesus, endowed with the beatific vision and infused knowledge, was waiting for them, helping them along the way to persevere on their momentous journey.

When the caravan of the Magi finally arrived in Jerusalem, the wise men inquired: "Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him." Perhaps they expected that the people of Jerusalem would be celebrating the birth of their new king. What must have been their surprise and let-down, when nobody there had seen the star. Nobody appeared to even care - except King Herod.

For Herod this was a cause of alarm. Herod the Great, builder of the temple and of many huge construction projects, castles, and fortresses during his long reign of forty years, had of late become paranoid. Obsessed with fears of plots and assassination, he ruthlessly murdered two of his sons, then his wife and finally his eldest son. Now the inquiry of the wise men about the one "born king of the Jews" set off a screaming siren of alarm in his fearful heart:

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel'" (Mt 2:3-6).

Note the contrast: the wise men welcomed Jesus whereas Herod and "all Jerusalem with him" was troubled. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew contrasts the welcome of true believers against the political machinations of enemies of Jesus. Incidentally, because the inquiry made by the wise men stirred up such a flurry of activity among the leaders and scholars in Jerusalem, many people would remember this. Perhaps some of them eventually informed Matthew about the event when he pieced things together to write his Gospel.

With forked tongue, Herod now sends the wise men on their way:

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy (Mt 2:7-10).

Suddenly the great star had appeared in the sky again for the Magi. Matthew departs from his usual unadorned style here by piling up superlatives to describe the immense joy the wise men felt when they saw the star again. Their faith, their journey, their perseverence had not been in vain. They were about to be rewarded. As they mounted their camels to go to Bethlehem, the star in the vault of the night sky went before them. It led them directly to the place where the Child was. Glory filled their hearts. As they dismounted they prepared to meet the Lord.

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (Mt 2:11).

They didn't stand, they didn't bow, they didn't shake hands. They "fell down" and adored the Child whom Mary held in her arms. They fell down before Him because they recognized Him as God, the God who had created them, who had given them their lives, who had made the world in which they live and breathe. Waves of adoration, of gratitude, of joy moved alternatively through their minds and hearts. They were representatives of the gentile world. They brought to Jesus, for the first time, reverence, respect, and faith from the gentile world. Mary adored with them. Matthew does not include Joseph in this scene. The wise men, and with them the entire world who would read His Gospel, should be reminded that Jesus was born miraculously of the Immaculate Virgin who knew not man.

Six hundred years before this the Prophet Isaiah had foreseen that the entire human race would flock into the Kingdom of God, bringing themselves and their gifts from all corners of the earth:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Mid'ian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD (Isaiah 60:1-6).

It is thus that Saint Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, made his point that Jesus came to save all men, not only the Jews, and that the Holy Spirit enables people of good disposition to find faith in Christ. When Matthew wrote his Gospel there was still tension among the first disciples about admitting non-Jews to the Church. By writing the story of the Magi, Matthew pointed out that the Christ welcomed the gentiles into His company from the very beginning. By mentioning the gifts that the Magi brought, he makes a connection with Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60:6, in which the universality of God's Kingdom is foretold.

We pause for a moment to join the wise men prostrate before Jesus. "My Lord and my God" we say. We rise with them to offer Him our gifts: gold to our heavenly King. The precious metal is a symbol of our faith, our love, our lifetime loyalty. We offer frankincense in adoration to our Creator God. We offer myrrh, as Joseph and Nicodemus would embalm Him after His death, to thank Him for being our Redeemer.

Jesus did not refuse the gifts, Mary was glad to see their faith, and Joseph was happy to learn about the gifts that would help the Holy Family in a time of need. The time would come very soon, when they would have to flee for their lives to Egypt, leaving behind whatever they had not taken along from their home in Nazareth.

The wise men could not have tarried a long time in Bethlehem, because trouble was brewing in Jerusalem. King Herod (37 BC-4 AD) was not about to allow a possible rival to live in peace. In fact, all Jerusalem was excited with him, including the Sadducees and their priests, the Pharisees and the Elders, rulers of the people in restive subordination to Herod. But Matthew indicates that there is no need to worry either about the safety of the wise men nor of Jesus. God sees all things, including "the hidden things before they came to pass" (Sirach 48:25). So while Herod fumes, God quietly informs the wise men to escape his wrath by taking a different route back to their homeland. "And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way" (Mt 2:12).

St. John Chrysostom points out that the Magi would not have been brought to faith by any great kingly show of the Child, whom they found to be living in such lowly circumstances. Nor did they lose faith because God instructed them to return by another route instead of showing miraculous powers. They did not ask why they had to avoid Herod, but simply obeyed when they received an order: "For this most especially belongs to faith, not to seek an account of what is enjoined, but merely to obey the commandments laid upon us" (Homily 8, Gospel according to Matthew).

We can take a lesson for ourselves from this scene: how often we fret and worry about troubles of tomorrow, whereas if we do the will of God, God will be with us tomorrow as well as today, watching over us with tender care: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, "'My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.'" (Psalm 91:1-2). How fortunate these wise men from the east, who now went safely back to their with faith in their hearts. We trust that we shall meet them in heaven.