Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Isaiah 60:1-6
This passage is from Third Isaiah. The first part (Is 60:1-3) announces the return of the exiles in language taken over from Second Isaiah (Is 40-55).
The second part (Is 60:4-6) foretells the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to the restored city of Jerusalem. The first part is typological of the birth of Christ; the second part, of the visit of the Magi.
Although Matthew (curiously, in view of his special interest in quoting Old Testament prophecies) does not cite this passage, it has clearly influenced the Magi narrative, as the reference to gold and frankincense in verse 6 shows.
Other features from this passage, not noted by Matthew, were added by popular legend to the story of the Magi, namely, the fact that the Magi were Gentiles, to say nothing of the camels in Isaiah 60:6!
Responsorial Psalm: 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
This psalm was originally a coronation hymn, composed for kings of the Davidic dynasty. Christian faith sees its fulfillment in Christ, for it emphasizes the “pastoral” aspects of kingship, such as the establishment of justice and compassion for the poor. The psalm also brings out a feature absent from the first reading—the figure of the messianic king.
We may suspect that this psalm, like the First Reading, also influenced the Matthean narrative of the Magi. Once more we note the lack of any explicit quotation, yet the psalm speaks of the pilgrims bringing gifts and falling down in homage before the messianic king. Like Isaiah 60, the psalm has also contributed something to the legend of the Magi, namely, their identification as kings. That they were three kings was an inference from the three gifts specified by Matthew.
Christian faith sees Psalm 72 appropriately fulfilled in the coming of Christ as the messianic king who brings justice and compassion for the poor (fourth stanza), and in the universality of the acknowledgment accorded to the messianic king (“all nations” in the third stanza, echoed in the refrain).
Reading II: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
This reading is an explicit theological statement of the two themes adumbrated in the first reading: the revelation or epiphany of God in Christ (Eph 3:3) and the universality of messianic salvation (Eph 3:6).
Many modern scholars regard Ephesians as the work, not of Paul himself, but of a member of the Pauline school looking back, after the Apostle’s death, upon his achievement in maintaining the unity of Jew and Gentile in the one Church.
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
This pericope gathers together early Christian traditions from different sources.
1. The primitive kerygma had affirmed Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3). According to Jewish expectation, this qualified him for messiahship. As a Christological affirmation, Jesus’ Davidic descent explains the importance attached in the infancy narratives to his birth at Bethlehem.
2. A tradition common to Matthew and Luke dates the birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod (d. 4 B.C.). This dating is plausible and may well rest on fact.
3. There is the folk memory of Herod’s cruelty, and especially the pathological fear of assassination and usurpation that marked the closing years of his reign.
4. The star was regarded as a symbol of the Messiah. It originated in Num 24:17 and was given a messianic interpretation as early as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Matthew’s failure to quote Num 24:17 is again surprising.
5. The gifts presented to the Christ child were suggested by our first reading and the Responsorial Psalm, although, again, Matthew does not cite them.
6. There is the testimonium from Micah 5:2 cited in Matthew 2:6. This passage was already interpreted messianically in Judaism (see John 7:42 and the fact that, unusually for Matthew, it is placed here on the lips of the scribes). It seems likely, therefore, that it was used as a testimonium before Matthew, though the structure of the pericope suggests that it was first inserted into the story by the evangelist.
7. Finally, although Matthew does not emphasize it, there is the tradition of Gentiles coming to see the messianic salvation, from the First Reading and Psalm 72.
All these factors contributed to the shaping of the Magi story. The only certain historical facts behind the narrative are the names Jesus, Joseph and Mary; the dating of the birth; and perhaps the location of the birth at Bethlehem, although that tradition may have originated from Micah 5:2 and Jewish expectation about the Messiah, The significance of the story is almost entirely symbolical.
Reginald H. Fuller