January 7, 2018
The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Joseph carrying out the instructions he had received in a dream. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) Matthew omits a number of important details between the end of his first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter, which is the gospel text for this Sunday. Most of us fill in those missing pieces with familiar passages from other Gospels, with images from famous works of art, and with our own prayerful meditation. But Matthew’s gospel is also the word of God, and it has its own wisdom and insight to be savored.
When Joseph agreed to take Mary into his house as his wife as he had been instructed, he spared Mary the possibility of being sent away in quiet disgrace to give birth, or even the possibility of being stoned to death. Matthew skips over the report of the child’s birth entirely, where all of creation, from angels to shepherds, proclaims the glorious event that has taken place in Bethlehem. Instead Matthew reports that it is Joseph who gives the child the name Jesus, the name Luke reports was given to Mary at the annunciation. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) Matthew has also skipped over such events as the census, not finding room in the city and therefore seeking shelter in a manger, the angels declaring the birth, and the shepherds’ experience. Matthew does not even name Mary in telling us of the birth of Jesus. Despite not having relations with Mary, Joseph takes on the responsibility of the child as if he were his son, and gives him the name Jesus. But Matthew provides other details that will help his audience understand how God has been unfolding God’s plan in the birth of this child. Some of Matthew’s details are present in today’s gospel text.
The Magi were part of the gentile world into which Jesus was born. The Magi were those who studied the heavens for clues to the meaning of life. They functioned as political and religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and later the Persian empires. At one point in Persian history, the Magi revolted and replaced their king, demonstrating their importance within their culture. Given that they were looking for a person of significance, it is no surprise that they would first go to Jerusalem, the center of the religious and political world of Judea.
But the newborn king was an entirely different kind of king, and therefore not to be found in Jerusalem but rather the small isolated community of Bethlehem. When the Magi arrived there and entered the house, they first saw the child with his mother, and then prostrated themselves before the infant. Matthew has described this encounter between the Magi and the child Jesus in such a way that his audience recognizes that even those without the benefit of their sacred tradition are able to recognize the hand of God at work here. Creation itself is revealing the way, so that those who are open and seek the ways of God can recognize what has taken place. Who these Magi were, their names, how many there were–the details that have been added later are not described by Matthew. The Magi are important because they help establish that the whole world was affected by what God had done. The magi can now fade into history. Having discovered the child, they pay him homage, offer their gifts, and then step aside so that God can unravel God’s divine plan. The magi are much like Simeon and Anna in Luke’s gospel, who have waited faithfully most of their lives. Once the magi have seen the hand of God at work in the child Jesus, they praise God and depart by another route. “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the people, a light for revelations to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
The Magi’s response to the birth of Jesus is in sharp contrast to that of King Herod, the living and reigning King of Judea. Herod knows that he has not fathered an heir. Therefore, the news that there exists a newborn heir is not welcome. Herod is also different from the Magi in that he is merely a puppet ruler for Rome, while the Magi have esteem and authority in their society. While the Magi have only a star that signals the birth of a person of importance, Herod has advisers who know of the prophecies about the birth of the messiah, but they seem to be oblivious to the fact that the child has arrived. Herod’s reaction is one of distress, and he is not moved to personal action. Rather, with a deceitful claim for his motive, he directs the Magi to bring him the information he needs. The Magi have taken on the difficult and dangerous task of leaving their homeland to track down the person whom the star’s appearance signifies. They have brought precious gifts that indicate his importance and they bow before him. Herod keeps his intention secret, and in secret he asks the Magi to supply him with information he will need.
The Magi and Herod represent two very different responses to the presence of Jesus. Those who have the advantage of being familiar with the religious traditions (that should help them recognize the significance of the events unfolding before them) are unable to identify who Jesus is. They respond with fear, and, as we know the story, even murder of the innocent. Those without the benefit of being familiar with the religious tradition are willing take on personal risk. They recognize the significance of this infant’s birth: God’s love is powerful and pervasive–it will not be thwarted. They offer the gifts that they have, bow reverently, and take their leave.
- What is the range of responses people in your family might have to news that one of the family is pregnant?
- Where do you find the signs of God’s presence in creation, in human history, and in your own history?
- Who in your family are the first in line to hold the babies at family gatherings? Are there also members in your family who seem to feel very awkward in the presence of newborns?
- The Magi were men who were comfortable enough with the darkness to study changes in the night sky. What are the areas of darkness in your own life today? Are you more apt to avoid reflection on your own darkness, or to look for signs of God’s presence in the darkness?
- The Magi have the ability offer their gifts and depart so that the newborn king can rise and take his place in God’s plan. Herod on the other had feels threatened and tries to hold on to his position. Do you know elderly people and others who have the ability to gently offer their wisdom to the new members, and gently make room for the new ones to emerge? Do you also know elderly people and others who hold on to their roles of importance?
- Do you ever fear that things you hold precious are being threatened? When has your response been like the magi? Has it ever resembled the response of Herod?
- Where might God be trying to break in and be present anew in your world?
- What stands out for you in Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus? What might this be showing you about how God is present in the events of your life?
- Can you take some time to talk to God about how you see God revealing God’s plan in your own life and how you are responding, or about some other thought or feeling that this gospel makes present to you?
The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.