Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

- Matthew 2:1-12

Our first reading in Matthew begins with chapter 2. This is quite a marvelous picture of these wise men who have come from the East. That is, they have come from outside of Israel (perhaps from Persia, my study bible notes), and they are the scholars of their time. In the Old Testament, Balaam (Num. 23; 24) was one of their predecessors, a Gentile who also anticipated the Messiah. My study bible notes that the worship of the Lord by the Magi is symbolic of the Church, in which membership is determined by faith, and not by ethnic lineage.

The star is a great sign of extraordinary importance. In ancient times, a star signified a god, a deified king. This star, says my study bible, is a sign of the Messiah Himself, signifying the light He will shed upon the world.

Herod knows little about the Jewish Messiah and is fearful of losing his throne. He calls his chief priests and scribes together to find where the child is born. The chief priests are the political and religious leaders of Israel; they include the high priest who alone can enter the Holiest of All. They have no idea that the Messiah has been born. The scribes are high cabinet officers and know the Messiah is to be born, and where. But they have no revelation that He has come. The truth is revealed in the heart; according to Luke 8:15, a "noble and good heart." It is interesting to note that Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians (most likely at Antioch), cites Gentiles as the first worshipers of Jesus - while Luke, writing for Gentile Christians, cites as the first worshipers the Jewish poor -- shepherds from surrounding fields.

The Magi are therefore the firstfruits of the Gentiles. They come to Christ bearing gifts of gold, for a King; frankincense, for God; and myrrh, for a Man who is to suffer and die. It is important to note that although they have received information from the star, when they see Jesus they recognize him. My study bible says that Jesus is recognized as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), the Orient (the rising sun) from on high (Is. 59:19), the Bright and Morning Star (Rev. 22:16).

The marvelous thing about the beginning of this gospel of Matthew is its wondrous, awe-filled portrait of a world poised on the cusp of revelation, and how that revelation unfolds. Although we have skipped the genealogy of the first chapter in our reading, a close reading of that particular chapter reveals anomalies that also give us great insight into the birth of this Messiah. For example, genealogies did not normally include women's names but Matthew's does. And those who are named are either Gentiles or sinners. What is to be inferred therefore, is God's grace at work, the quality of mercy and graciousness. And, the crucial role of women in this particular history anticipates the role of Mary, called "God-bearer" in so many branches of the Church.

So, in this one reading, and in this beginning to the gospel of Matthew, we are already given great signs that convey insight into what is at work and how it is at work. We unite the past with the present, Gentile and Jew, revelation and expectation. We are already filled with paradox: the child is unknown to those experts who have expected him, a king trembles. And yet this child is born into a family while his mother is yet betrothed, the father's faith relies on the strength of revelation in a dream. The wise men of the East understand a star, and recognize the infant as the One. Another dream warns them about Herod, a great builder but a cruel ruler, and so they go home by a different route. The heart is open to revelation, then and now. We must take note of the role of faith, despite prediction and prophecy, and how great its importance is in revelation, to anyone; and how truth is revealed via our own means of understanding.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

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