Magi are as numerous as stars in the sky
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Feast of the Epiphany
By Glen Argan
So, what about those three “wise men” whose journey to Bethlehem we follow this Sunday in the feast of the manifestation of the Saviour to the Gentiles?
First, who says there were three of them? Not St. Matthew’s account; it mentions only three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. St. Peter’s tomb, however, is adorned with artwork of two magi, the tomb of a fourth-century martyr with four magi and some mediaeval lists, according to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, named 12 magi.
As for the magi being wise, that may be, but they were almost certainly astrologers. That seemingly straightforward fact nevertheless was mostly ignored by Christians in the early centuries who took to calling them “kings.”
The “king” part likely came from Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm which said kings of Sheba and Seba (Arabia and Syria) brought gifts before God’s king. The First Reading from Isaiah 60 also refers to people bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to the Lord.
Then, there is the Gospel’s addition of myrrh to the list of gifts brought to Jesus. What sort of baby gift is myrrh, typically used for embalming corpses?
This time the Christmas carol gets it right: “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
This, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen emphasized, was one baby whose purpose in being born was to die. It was his death, not his miracles or teachings, that were the point of his life – the redemption of the world.
Redemption is the undertone of the entire chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel with the figure of Moses never far from the surface. The terror of both pharaoh and Herod and the subsequent slaughter of young children, Jesus’ flight into and subsequent return from Egypt, the consulting of both pharaoh and Herod with astrologers are the most obvious parallels between the Moses and Jesus stories.
The purpose of these parallels is most likely to show Jesus as not just a king, but a liberator, one who sets people free with a new covenant.
The astrologers in Matthew are also stand-ins for the Gentiles. When they finally arrive at the house of Jesus, our translation says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” Brown says a literal translation would be that the magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Talk about getting your point across!
However, so should we rejoice exceedingly with great joy in our encounter with Jesus. Taking our liberation and our liberator seriously could only evoke such a response. This is the “epiphany,” the manifestation of God among people from away.
God is here present among all the people of the world. So, it is fitting that the number of magi not be just two or three, but as many as the stars in the sky. All the stars come to follow the one star which points to Jesus.
[Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3.2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2.1-12]
[Photo by Glen Argan of the Magi on the façade of Familia de Sagrada, Barcelona]