The story of the Magi who come from the East to pay homage to the Child Jesus, whom they call king of the Jews, is an important part of the Christmas story. It’s found only in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians in Galilee and Syria sometime after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. They were shocked by the complete destruction of the temple and the city itself, because these were places where God’s promises would be fulfilled, they believed. The Messiah would appear there. All nations would stream to Jerusalem, prophets like Isaiah foretold. Now they’re gone.
Matthew’s gospel reminds his hearers–and us too–that before he comes again Jesus must be known by all nations. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” are his final words in Matthew’s gospel, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28, 18-20)
Can we see the story of the Magi at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel his reminder that even as Jesus is born, even as innocent children are being killed by King Herod, messengers, strangers, wise men from afar, approach him and acknowledge him as their king and their God.
Jesus Christ came, our gospel story says, not for only one people or nation, he came for all. His ministry was first to the Jews, but Jesus wishes to make the world one. God doesn’t wish to save a few. He wants to save all, all the world.
The Magi came, our story says, from the east, so they may come from Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today in our country. More and more, today as we look at the world through the lens of politics and economics, we fear the stranger, we reject the immigrant, we create enemies. We reject people who are not like us. We’re becoming tribal, not global. As the old song said, “With someone like you, a pal good and true, I’d like to leave it all behind and go and find, a place that’s known to God alone, and let the rest of the world go by.”
Why aren’t we more jealous to bring our faith to others? Why are we so slow to see the promise our faith brings to the world? Why do we hesitate to talk about Jesus Christ, his teachings and the example of his life? We can’t let the rest of the world go by. We’re living in a big world and God wants it to be one.
That’s what the story of the magi reminds us. We have a commission on this Feast of the Epiphany to receive them. Next Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. “Go to the whole world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” teaching them to observe all that Jesus commands. And he will be with us, even to the end of time.
And the newcomers come with gifts.
I like Pope Benedict’s reflection on Matthew’s account of the Magi i: “The key point is this: the wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.”
Benedict, at the end of his study reflecting on the historicity of the infancy accounts notes a changing attitude favoring their historical reliability. The evangelists do not wish to deceive their readers, but inform them concerning historical facts.
“ With this view I can only agree. The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.”
Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives . The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.