Epiphany, Jan. 7, 2018
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
In Eastern Churches this is the true celebration of Christmas, because the feast focuses on the actual recognition of Jesus as the “born” king of the Jews. This emerges as soon as the “magi from the east” arrive in Jerusalem. They actually ask, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?”
That contrasted with Herod, who was appointed king of the Jews by the Romans. If one is “born king” he would take the place of an appointee. That is what later causes Herod such grief, leading him to try to kill the legitimate heir to the throne. This puts a lot of weight on the testimony of the “magi from the east.”
Herod certainly put stock in what they sought by consulting with the chief priests and the scribes about where the Christ (or anointed one) was to be born. Kings were anointed, not crowned, in the Biblical world, which means Herod knew the implications of one born with the right to be anointed as king. It would have meant Herod was a pretender to the throne and that the newborn was a threat to his power. The priests answer that he was to be born in Bethlehem, land of Judah. They then quote “the prophet” (Micah 5:2): “And you Bethlehem, land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; out of you will come a ruler, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
After this Herod summons the magi to inquire of them when they had seen the star at its rising. We will return to the star in a moment. Their answer led him to order the deaths of all males two years old and younger. Alert readers will recall chapter one of Exodus where the Pharaoh ordered the deaths of all the Hebrew male children at birth. Matthew had this narrative in mind throughout this infancy narrative of the birth of Jesus, when later the Holy Family flees into Egypt only to return when Herod dies.
Now it is time to go star-gazing. Many ancient peoples believed stars arose at the birth of great people. They were regarded as signs from the gods of their future greatness. The appearance of comets, on the other hand, were regarded as portents of death, usually of reigning monarchs. Efforts have been made since the seventeenth century to explain what that star might have been, looking back in time for evidence of the appearance of supernovas or comets that would have appeared in that region. Fr. Raymond Brown wrote a fascinating book called An Adult Christ at Christmas, which explored many of these issues in detail. It is a book I highly recommend.
Matthew has none of these later reference points when he wrote his Gospel. What he did have was a primarily Jewish Christian audience and the Old Testament Scriptures, in particular Numbers 22-24. In these chapters, a foreign king, Balak, summons a seer from the East, Balaam, to come with the power of a magician to curse the Israelites who were fleeing Egypt. Balaam receives a vision in the night, not to curse the Israelites, but to bless them. In one such blessing he says in Numbers 24:17: “…a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
If this passage inspired Matthew, it fits other themes in the Gospel. It is a likely backdrop for Matthew’s entire Gospel, which saves us searching the heavens looking for clues of what the star’s origin was. Within the Scriptures themselves Matthew found what he was looking for to parallel Israel’s quest for liberation and freedom during the Exodus journey. The Christians’ link with Judaism is affirmed by tying these ancient themes to the life journey of Jesus, a journey which has its unique dangers, modeled on Israel’s journey from slavery into freedom. In the case of Christ Jesus, the journey is not completed until his resurrection from the dead, which brings life to us all. This then is full story of Christmas, and makes it easy to see why Eastern Churches celebrate this as the real Christmas. Christ is born and praise to him!
Fr. Lawrence L. Hummer email@example.com