Epiphany 5th January 2014
While our gospels like to parallel the Hebrew Scriptures they like to juxtapose as well. The juxtaposition is meant to put the sting in the tail of the parallel. Thus here in our Gospel today we have Herod pictured as the one who parallels Pharaoh. Just as Pharaoh long ago sought to frustrate God’s plan with seeking to exterminate all the Hebrew children in Egypt so here will Herod seek to frustrate God’s plan by attempting to kill Jesus. The sting in the parallel of course is that Herod as king of the Jewish people is supposedly meant in that role to rule in God’s stead; to do those things that would best enable the plans of God to come to fruition. How ironic then that the one called to lead the people in holiness and the foreign pagan magi who come to him both wish to know where the Messiah is to be born, Herod in order to kill him, the foreign wise men in order to worship him! All that we would expect is reversed. The resulting flight will then take place not from pagan Egypt to the holy land of Israel but from Israel to the land synonymous in Jewish mythology with being opposed to God’s will; Egypt.
As to the star it has been variously thought to be a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars which occurred in 8BCE, Halley’s Comet 12/11 BCE or supernova as described by Chinese astronomers in 5 BCE. It hardly really matters.
Matthew also draws from the Hebrew Scriptures. The rising up of kings from the east and their association with the Messiah is seen in a number of the passages of the tradition with which Matthew’s readers would have all being familiar, including our reading today from Isaiah. (Also Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 41:2, 49:1-7). The story of the Gentile wise man Balaam who carries forward the plan of God is also present as an antecedent to this story and one which this story parallels (Numbers 22-24).
Now who are these magi? The term refers to those engaged in what are called the occult arts covering a wide range of astronomers, fortune tellers and magicians. In the later Christian tradition these arts came to be seen in negative terms but there is no negativity implied in Matthew’s writing. Indeed he wishes to do precisely the exact opposite. Those of the holy tradition are painted darkly while those following these pagan pursuits are imaged in a much better light. The magi represent the best of pagan lore and religious receptivity having come to seek the Messiah as revealed in the things of nature. Matthew wishes us to learn however that the full revelation of the Messiah cannot come from nature alone but that the magi must learn from the Hebrew Scriptures as to the place of the birth. Thus after receiving the magi Herod calls together the ‘chief priests’, the Sanhedrin, who use a prophecy from Micah 5:2-5, to tell him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then informs the magi as to the prophecy and then sends them on their way to the village, asking them to return to him after they have found him so that he too ‘may come and worship him.’ Thus Matthew draws the contrast even deeper. The pagan magi understand the Jewish tradition of the coming of the Messiah as good news calling for worship, while Herod fails to understand truly the tradition and so perversely uses it to frame his evil machinations. Based on the revelation from the Hebrew Scriptures the two groupings act totally differently, the magi going forth to worship this messiah, the evil Herod waiting for their return so as to solicit the information off them which will enable him to kill the Messiah. His immediate plan is frustrated of course by the warning the magi receive in a dream to return by another way. The furious Herod then decides to annihilate all the young boys in that area, hoping to catch the Messiah in his net. Such actions mark the tyrant frustrated! What we know of Herod puts little beyond him!
The Magi having departed Herod following both the star and the prophecy found in the Jewish sacred tradition arrive in Bethlehem, the place where both Matthew and Luke following prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, through using totally different means to get him there, must have the Messiah born, to offer their homage and gifts. The gifts they offer have been symbolised in many ways but in general they would seem to be gifts suitable for being offered to a king. Thus on her visit to King Solomon the Queen of Sheba brings gold, spices and precious stones to honour Israel’s king. Each of the particular offerings presented by the Magi as a gift here are present in the Hebrew Scriptures as being specific gifts presented to a king; gold (Psalm 72:13), frankincense (Isaiah 60:6, where it is given along with gold) and myrrh (Psalm 45:8 and Song of Songs 3:6 where in the latter case it is given along with frankincense).
What do we learn from the story? First we need to move past a literalism which may preclude us from really appreciating it. The story tells us of the right response in face of the Messiah. The shocking thing is that this right response comes from the pagan magi rather than from within the sacred tradition. As inheritors of the sacred tradition we need always to be careful in how we use it. Like Herod, it may even blind us to the ways of God’s workings. It may even cause us to carry out policies as depraved as those carried out by Herod. Christian history is littered with them! We need to be more careful in offering harsh judgments of those not considered orthodox. The magi certainly didn’t come from within the tradition. They even practiced all sorts of things, later frowned upon by the church, and yet they were used by God.
The actions of God are not to be constrained by our neat theologies and ideas. God is still able to be witnessed in the actions of those normally dismissed by the sacred tradition, those that come from outside it, like those magi of old. We may be so arrogantly smug in our supposedly true traditions may not hear God’s word spoken from outside.
- John Queripel