Thought for the day
In our deepest selves, each of us is a mystery: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? How should I live? The risk in our present culture is to sleepwalk through life, to be satisfied with a merely material existence. But the human “project” is much greater. Each of us is really on a pilgrimage, or better on a quest — a quest to become my true self, in the image and likeness of God. My truest self is found by being open to God, in whom we live and move and have our being. By following that star, by listening to our conscience and inner selves, we come home to God.
You are the mystery at the heart all that exists: draw us to yourself, O Lord, that knowing you we find our true selves, and finding our true selves, we may come to know you.
Matt 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Matt 2:7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.
The readings from the Infancy Gospels bear an unusually close link to narratives in the Old Testament. Again, the writer is exploring the identity of Jesus, using citations and re-written narratives. It all may seem strange to us, but the original hearers—Jewish Christians—would have had no trouble picking up the resonances and going straight to the meaning expressed in the stories.
Kind of writing
This is a kind of haggadah, a Rabbinic style of writing which explores and exposes meaning by a resonant acoustic of echoes, thereby creating devotional and uplifting literature. Everything is in some way symbolic, the star, the magi, the king, Bethlehem and the gifts, pointing to the identity of Jesus and the inclusion of the Gentiles in salvation.
Old Testament background
(i) Behind the story of the magi—wise men—lies the story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. In the Book of Numbers, an evil king of Moab tries to use the seer/magus Balaam to bring disaster on the people of Israel “because they were so numerous”. Against God’s will, Balaam obeys the king, but at the point of cursing Israel, Balaam utters an oracle of future hope. This oracle was read in later times as a Messianic promise.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near— a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;” (Num 24:17)
The author takes from this story the narrative of an evil King (Balak / Herod), trying to bring disaster (on Israel / on the Messiah), by means of Balaam (a seer / the Magi). The star in the story comes from Numbers 24:17 above and alerts the reader this time to Messianic fulfilment.
(ii) The gifts offered by the magi call to mind a universalist text in Isaiah:
“A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6)
It was concluded from this text as well that the mode of transport of the magi was camels, although Matthew supplies no such detail.
(iii) The Magi as a symbol of the Gentiles comes from an echo in Psalm 72:
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” (Psa 72:10-11)
(iv) Bethlehem, the city of David, is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, unlike Nazareth. The proof text provided was, at the time, read as a messianic prophecy.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Mic 5:2)
New Testament foreground
(i) Matthew’s Gospel reflects the historical memory that Jesus did not himself directly evangelise the Gentiles, at least initially.
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 10:5-7)
(ii) Nevertheless, in Matthew’s Gospel and community, the Gentiles are an important audience of the Good News (15-6-13-5).
[a] At the start of the ministry: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”” (Matt 4:12-17)
[b] During the ministry: “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”” (Matt 12:15-21)
[c] At the close of the Gospel: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:16-20)
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27)
Verses 22-24 There are three elements here: (a) purification—of the mother only, hence “their” is odd; (b) presentation of the child (not his redemption); offering of the child to God is along the lines of Samuel. The child is not ransomed but presented (see Exodus 13).
Verse 25-32 “Now” introduces the expected prophetic statement combining praise of God and an indication of the child’s destiny. The comfort or consolation is written is written with Is 40:1ff. in mind. The consolation of Israel is precisely in the Messiah of the Lord. Simeon models waiting of Israel for the coming Christ. In the hymn, to dismiss means to allow to die. The word salvation is rare in the NT (Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 28:28; Eph 6:17) and almost confined to the Lucan oeuvre. Light is the key metaphor here. We are perhaps meant to think of Isaiah: The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Is 52:10) The coming of the Messiah includes glory. Cf. I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory. (Is 46:13) In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory. (Is 45:25)
Verses 33-35 There is a blessing for the parents, with a particular part addressed to Mary. Jesus’ ministry will have two effects: acceptance and rejection. Behind the language of falling may lie the much used metaphor of the stumbling block, found widely in the NT. The parenthesis in v. 35 here is as awkward in Greek as in English and may be editorial.
Verses 36-40 Considerable emphasis is placed on Anna’s advanced age and well attested piety. “At that very moment” is a frequent phrase in Luke 10:21; 12:12; 13:31; 20:19; 24:33 Acts 16:18; 22:13. To praise here comprises recognition, obedience and proclamation, all done in public. V. 40 is a second “conclusion” of sorts (cf. 1:80 and 2:52). The emphasis on growth, physical, spiritual and social, goes against a constant tendency in the tradition to underplay the very real humanity of Jesus.
Pointers for prayer
1. What is the star (the vision, hope or purpose) which lights up your journey?
2. Like the wise men, our life journey is not one we travel alone. Who are the people who share you life journey now?
3. The wise men travelled bearing gifts. What gift do you bring with you on the journey?
4. At times the wise men lost sight of the star. What clouds have obscured your star?
5. Who, or what, might be Herod for you now? What forces, within or without, could subvert the dream or goal?
Lord God of the nations, we have seen the star of your glory rising in splendour. The radiance of your incarnate Word pierces the darkness that covers the earth and signals the dawn of peace and justice.
Make radiant the lives of your people with that same brightness, and beckon all the nations to walk as one in your light.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.n.