Addressing the Friction

The readings for Sunday, January 8, 2016, Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; and Matthew 2:1-12.

The Christian scribe whom tradition calls Matthew seems to have been commissioned by the Christian Community of Antioch in Syria to compose a document to bring about unity between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles in that already well known Christian Church. We know from the New Testament, and especially from Acts of Apostles and Paul’s Letter to Galatians that there was serious friction between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the Church at Antioch. Matthew must find a way to proclaim the Good News in written form to both elements. This double approach is evident in his two birth stories. The birth story of Matthew’s first chapter was aimed especially at the Jewish Christian element. The birth story we call the Epiphany is more concerned with the Gentile element.

Most Christians know the story. No need to repeat all of it here. Best to ask not what happened, but what does it mean? The Gospels are catechisms — teaching the truths of our faith often in story form. The Magi represent all Gentile Christians. Said in a different way, “The Magi are us!” They came from the East, always a land of mystery. Matthew’s Magi are not kings. They are “scientists,” who study the stars — astronomers, astrologers who read the heavenly bodies to direct their own lives and the lives of their clients. Later tradition evolved them into kings under the influence of Old Testament passages in Isaiah and in the Psalms. Thus in our first reading today: “Nations (the Gentiles) shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance.” Psalm 72, today’s responsorial psalm, was part of the Magi’s evolution into kings. In this psalm we read, “The kings of Tarshish and the isles shall offer gifts. The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage. All nations (the Gentiles) shall serve him.”

King Herod hears rumors of exotic strangers inquiring about a newborn King of the Jews. That’s a problem for Herod, a suspicious and extremely cruel despot who had some of his own sons killed when he suspected them of plotting to take the throne.  No would-be kings tolerated! Not being a scholar of the Torah, he summoned the scholars to inquire about where the Christ (the anointed king) was to be born. They quote the prophet Micah (700 B.C.), “And you, Bethlehem, … are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.” What is Matthew teaching at this point? That Jesus’ own people knew that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. They should have made the connection between the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the Micah prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.

The Magi do not yet know about Micah’s  prophecy, but Herod knows and plots to do away with any royal rival. He summons the Magi and inquires about the star they claim to have seen in the East. He sends them to Bethlehem, and asks them to report back to him about this new king. The star reappears and guides them. It rests over the place where the child was. Why? Because the real star of the story is the child himself. Matthew has in mind an oracle of the prophet Balaam in Numbers 24:7, an oracle which identifies the star as a king, “…a star shall arise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel.” The star which first represented the knowledge of God that comes from nature, has merged into the star-ruler of Israel. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.” The house is an important word in this sentence. The house is the Church. Not only were all churches in houses (homes) in early Christianity, but the Church itself is called “the House of God.” Hebrews 3:6 refers to Jesus in these words, “Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son.”

The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh do not indicate the royalty of the Magi, but rather the royalty of the child to whom the gifts are presented.  When the Gospel of John depicts Jesus being buried as a king, he writes of “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.” A burial fit for a king! To what pressing question did Matthew proclaim an answer through the story of the Magi? Are the Gentiles welcome in the Church? His answer is a resounding “Yes.” That affirmative he expresses by depicting the Magi (the Gentiles) guided to the house by nature and revelation, freely entering the house, and recognizing the King of the Jews as also the King of the Gentiles, of all nations. “They saw the child, offered their gifts, and fell down and worshipped him.”