Let the Scriptures Speak

Have We Met the Magi?

Nations shall walk by your light. (Isa 60:3)

We had come to think of them as Amahl's night visitors (thanks to Menotti) or as three multicultural kings arriving a few days behind the shepherds at the Christmas cave. Matthew would be charmed but would likely remind us that magi are not kings but astrologers and interpreters of dreams, that the number three, while a reasonable guess from the number of the gifts, is not really part of the story, and that he had in mind not a cave but the house where the holy family lived in Bethlehem.

As for the star, our author would be amazed at the speculations spawned by that detail: a supernova? a comet? a conjunction of planets? Although any of these phenomena could catch the eye and arouse conjecture about an important birth, none could offer precise travel guidance to a local address (any more than comet Hale-Bopp could pinpoint a particular home today). No, he would say; it is a miracle story meant to point to a meaning beyond itself. The star means to recall the prophecy of the magos Balaam in Numbers 24 and to highlight the significance of Jesus' birth within the whole thrust of the story of Israel suggested by other elements of the story: travel into and out of Egypt, escape from a murderous ruler, the vocation to be a light to the Gentiles.

If it is a symbolic story, it is also profoundly historical in its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' birth. For Herod the Great was indeed a contemporary pharaoh—i.e., a monumental builder and a ruler who would use his power murderously when it suited his purposes. And Jesus truly did turn out to be a king whose power challenged abusive secular power such as that of Herod. Jesus was indeed rejected by the religious leadership of his day (“chief priests and scribes”). And Jesus would be accepted, indeed worshiped, more widely by Gentiles than by the historic people of Israel. Jesus would prove himself a Moses-figure leading his people on a new Exodus.

Most of us need the help of our own scribes to hear these truths in the narrative, but Matthew could have expected most of his original readers to catch on immediately. What the full Gospel of Matthew would unfold at length in twenty-eight chapters is forecast here in a couple of scenes.

The baby born in Joseph's home in David's town of Bethlehem is the son of David. He will, as risen Lord, turn out to be everything, and more, suggested by the words of Micah and Second Samuel quoted at the heart of today's Gospel—ruler and shepherd of his people.

And the child will fulfill the best hopes of Israel for itself. Everything the last chapters of Isaiah (especially today's First Reading) have to say in the vision of a restored Zion, a light and source of hope to surrounding nations seeking a way out of darkness, finds the beginning of fulfillment in Jesus born in Bethlehem.

What could be lost on us—and may be of special importance for us—is the story's implication that Jesus is the son of Abraham. For as Genesis tells it, Abraham himself was a Gentile, called out of Mesopotamia to be, with Sarah's help, the father of a people through whom Yahweh's covenant to the nations would be renewed; in other words, a Gentile bridging God's love to Gentiles. (See Gen 12:3, where Yahweh says to Abram: “All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”) The fulfillment of this is precisely what Matthew portrays in the coming of the Gentile Magi.

Where are we in this picture? We are the heirs of the Magi, Gentiles who have been led to share in the promises to Israel. The big question for us then is, "How are we to enable Christ to be a light to the nations today?" What makes that question different for us now than it might have been even just thirty years ago is that we no longer see non-Christians as benighted “pagans.” The World Almanac reminds me that the 1.87 billion of us who have accepted Jesus Christ as our light comprise no more than one-third of the world population. Of the rest, only 4 percent identify themselves as godless (atheist). For millions of others, Gautama is the “Buddha” or “Enlightened one” and thus their “light.” For a billion Muslims, the Quran is their light and it is Muhammad who personally focuses its message. Similar things could be said of the other major world religions.

Ever since Vatican II's Declaration on the Church's Relations with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate, 1965), we Catholics have claimed to look upon non-Christian religious traditions as ways of at least glimpsing the divine mystery and the path of right living whose full epiphany we find in the humanity of Jesus. This would seem to follow the spirit of the adult Jesus who could portray a heretic Samaritan as an exemplar of Torah righteousness and who could rejoice in the faith he found in the Syro-Phoenician woman and in the Roman centurion.

We are probably wrong to expect the political leaders of the world to establish peace. Better to hope that full shalom will come when the four billion of us who believe in a Transcendent Other are converted more deeply to the enlightenment that calls us all not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to lust, to respect parents, and to help the needy and weak. Jesus will be manifested as the light for the nations when we catch his fire more fully and share it. We have met the Magi “and they are us.”

Dennis Hamm, SJ

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson