Skip to comments.Journeying with the Magi
Posted on 12/29/2003 2:00:42 PM PST by Salvation
Journeying with the Magi
You want to cheer when the magi appear on the horizon in chapter 2 of Matthews Gospel. After all, the Savior of the world, God in the flesh, has been born! Historys central event has taken place! And although Jesus slipped in among us more like an undercover agent than a conquering hero, how right and fitting that a special delegation would make a special effort to welcome the newborn King.
Perhaps, like me, you feel indebted to the wise men from the East as you read the twelve verses where they make their one-time appearance in Scripture. They are like those strangers who go the extra mile to help someone you love when you cant be there yourself. Its as if they are stand-ins for us.
Patrons and Pioneers. Matthew presents the magi as trailblazers. In his Gospel, they are the very first to offer Jesus the adoration reserved for God, the worship that the disciples will offer him after the resurrection (28:9,17). Not only that: These pilgrims stand at the head of a long line of non-Jewish believers that will also include Roman centurions, a persistent Canaanite mother (Matthew 8:5; 27:54; 15:22)and most of us! As St. Augustine wrote, the wise men are the firstfruits of the Gentiles, the first of the multitudes who Jesus said would come from east and west to eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).
Since the great majority of Jesus followers have also been Gentiles, is it any wonder that Christians have long felt drawn to these travelers from afar? Already at the beginning of the second century, artists were depicting the adoration of the magi on the walls of the Roman catacombs. For centuries, it was the most popular Nativity scene in Christian art, far eclipsing Lukes picture of the shepherds at the manger (Matthew 2:16-20).
Still today, the wise men receive special tribute. We remember them on Christmas, and especially on the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the manifestation of Gods glory revealed in Jesus. This twelfth day of Christmas is, in many cultures, a festive occasion marked by gift-giving, a three kings cake, and processions. In New York City, for example, the Latino community gathers every January 6 for a colorful parade that features giant king figures leading a retinue that includes camels from a city zoo and legions of schoolchildren in magi costume.
A Mysterious Trio. Following the wise men in a procession is a graphic way of representing their role as models for our own inner journey to God. But how well do we know these guides? They are easily the most exotic, mysterious figures in our Nativity sets!
Scripture provides only the sparsest information: The visitors are wise men who know the stars; travel from the East; and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh before disappearing into the night. Matthew might be surprised at how they appear in our Christmas carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are. For one thing, he never specified how many magi there were. Many assumed that because they gave three gifts, there were three of them. But various other traditions have proposed two, four, eight, and even twelve. Further, Matthew never called them kings. This view developed out of Christian reflection on passages like Isaiah 60:1-6 and Psalm 72:10-11,15. He never supplied names and distinguishing characteristics: Young Caspar, middle-aged Balthasar, and aged Mel-chior made their first appearance in sixth-century writings.
Over the centuries, curiosity about the mysterious magi prompted truly fanciful speculation about their lives and their visit with the Holy Family. Some legends said that Mary gave them Jesus swaddling clothes, others said they received a magical stone. Medieval works traced the history of their gift of gold, which they suggested was used in Scriptures important finacial transactionsfrom Abrahams purchase of a burial cave (Genesis 23:16) to Judas payment for betraying Jesus! An ancient saints calendar said they died in Armenia in a.d. 55, within weeks of celebrating one last Christmas together. Even the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) got into the act, contending that the magi were from Persia and that he had visited their tombs fifty miles southwest of Tehran. A more widely known European tradition assigns their burial place to the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.
On the Trail of Magi from the East. So what can we know about the wise men? What can we learn from them? Despite the apparent poverty of detail in Matthews Gospel, his portrayal suggests a wealth of themes for reflection.
Matthew calls them magi, magoi, from an ancient Greek word that probably originally referred to a priestly tribe in western Persia. By the time of Jesus, however, magi was a more elastic term. It could indicate sorcerers, charlatans, or false prophets of any nationality (Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11), but also genuine scholars and seekers after wisdom.
Matthews magi are of the admirable type. Unlike King Herod, they did not have the benefit of the revelation contained in the Jewish Scriptures (Matthew 2:4-6). Even so, because they were hungry for truth, God met them in their study of astrology, which was not distinguished from astronomy in the ancient world. As they searched the night sky, they were drawn to Jesus through a puzzling star. Was it a supernova? Halleys comet? A rare conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars? Some other astral phenomenon? Todays astronomers are no less puzzled!
God guided these astrologers as he still guides everyone who seeks him sincerely, even when their explorations are somewhat off-center. As Scripture scholar Fr. George Montague points out, this is something to keep in mind in our relationships with people of other religions: We must respect the ways that they seek God, aware that the intensity of their longing for God may well shame our smug self-contentedness. At the same time, he says, we must remember that Christianity does have a unique message: to assume otherwise is to reject the very essence of gospelwhich means good news to be shared.
The magi expressed their longing for truth by undertaking a long and undoubtedly arduous journey from the East. We wonder about their home addresses. Did they hail from Babylon, which was a renowned center of astronomical study? Or were they from Persia (now Iran), as the word magi suggests and as many Church Fathers thought? In early Christian art, they sport Persian fashionstrousers, caps, and belted tunics with long sleeves. Art historians point out, however, that this was a standard way of portraying anyone from the East, whether Persian or not.
The earliest recorded view is from St. Justin Martyr, who insistednine times in a treatise he wrote around a.d. 160that the magi were from Arabia. Justin could well have had direct access to traditions preserved among Christian Jews in Palestine, some scholars believe, because he grew up in the city now called Nablus, in the West Bank. Then, too, according to Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, Old Testament references to people of the East generally refer to desert Arabs, who had a reputation for wisdom. And finally there is the evidence of the magis gifts of gold and spicesall known as products of Arabia.
While absolute certainty is impossible, Justin Martyrs viewpoint is especially tantalizing today. With prospects for peace in the land of Jesus birth looking so slim, it is movingeven hopefulto think that the first people who hailed the Jewish Messiah just might have been Arabs.
In Good Company. Wherever the wise men began their journey, their persistent and wholehearted search calls us to keep moving toward Jesus ourselves. Their example challenges us to consider whether we have allowed ourselves to get too bogged down in routines, mindsets, and personal comforts to make much headway on our journey to God. Are we still ready and willing to pick up that daily cross and walk the narrow path to life?
Matthew indicates that the wise men pursued truth in various waysthrough nature, consultation with others, and Scriptureand that God enabled them to recognize it when they found it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes the joyful discovery this way: They fall on their faces, they revere him as king, they worship him as God. He who led them has instructed them too. He who urged them on by means of the star has himself taught them in their inmost heart. What about us? Are we as open to Gods leading, as ready to commit ourselves as our brother magi?
The magi presented Jesus with a sampling of the ancient worlds costliest gifts. They gave the best. Finding much to ponder in these offerings, the Church Fathers often interpreted them as symbols of what every Christian is called to present to God: the gold of charity and good works, the incense of prayer and faith, the myrrh of purifying suffering and belief in the resurrection. During this season of Advent, we might consider how to make such an offering in our own lives. While it is always right to turn to God for what we need, this season encourages us to find ways of giving him what we value most, beginning with our very selves.
As we give ourselves to Jesus, we will find ourselves side by side with the magi. We will be, as Dorothy Day put it, in the company of those few who made up for the neglect of the crowd in Jesus earthly life:
The shepherds did it, their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ.
The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hands breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts that the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Childs life. For they brought gold, the kings emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe. . .
We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with.*
When Jesus came into the world, the magi were our representatives, welcoming and worshiping him as we were not able to do. Now, its up to us. Every day, we can welcome, reverence, and serve Jesus in other people. We can go the extra mile, seek him joyfully, and wholeheartedly embrace our role in Gods saving plan for the world.
We can do it too, exactly as the wise men did. This Advent, then, lets do it! n
*Taken from The Dorothy Day Library on the Web (www.catholicworker.org)
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Whether from Arabia or Persia, theirs was a very different culture than that of the followers of Mad Mo.
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Sounds through the earth and skies.
December 28, 2003, Sunday, Feast of the Holy Family
Legends of the Holy Family in Egypt
The Holy Familys flight to Egypt and their stay there gave rise to fascinating tales composed centuries later.
It is said that their journey to Egypt was blessed with many miracles lions and leopards wagging their tails in homage, palm trees bending down to give them fruit.
Legends dating back to the fifth century say that the Holy Family stayed in the city of Matariyah, just northeast of the present-day Cairo. One story says that as a child, Jesus grew balsam trees producing balm that cured almost anything, including snakebite.
Another tradition is that the family passed through a city about 150 miles up the Nile and as they did, the pagan idol statues bowed to them.
A monastery further up the Nile claims to be on the site where the Holy Family lived for six months. One of the apocryphal gospels tells the story that while there, two robbers set upon the Holy Family, but one repented when he saw Marys tears.
These turned out to be the same two robbers, goes the legend, who were later crucified with Jesus. The one, who back in Egypt, had been moved by Marys tears, ended up to be the Good Thief on the cross.
The Holy Family
Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small hill town up north. Such towns were a kinship network. Most everyone would have been a relative of Jesus. They lived in close proximity and were part of each others lives.
When we think of the family of Jesus, we can delete the image of Jesus sitting quietly with Mary while Joseph made chairs in his carpenter shop. The Holy Family lived in close quarters with cousins, in-laws, shirttail relatives of all kinds. There was no getting away from family.
Heres a question: When extended families come together, do most people look forward to it, or do they find it difficult?
Thats not easy to answer. We worry about the relative who is likely to get drunk. We arent sure what to do about divorced and re-married members who bring in-laws we dont know very well. Plus theres always someone whos currently on the outs with other family members. Its quite a mix.
It takes a lot of virtue and patience to be part of such an extended family a lot of indirect kindness that may or may not have an effect. We do our best and try to be kind, knowing that we cant single-handedly change things around.
Jesus was part of an extended family no different from mine.
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