The Visit of the Magi

Reflections on the readings for Sunday 2 January 2011
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

The ‘three wise men’ who bring the Christ child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is one of our iconic Christmas images. The number of the magi isn’t actually in the text but one per gift makes sense, visually anyway. Matthew is the only Evangelist who records this story. Throughout his Gospel he draws heavily upon the Old Testament to communicate his picture of Jesus and the meaning of his life. The explicit quotations – like the one here from the prophet Micah – are obvious, but there are also subtler allusions which add further layers of meaning to his stories. The slaughter of the innocents by an insecure king and the sojourn in Egypt, for instance, (told in the latter part of Matthew 2), echo the opening chapters of the book of Exodus and contribute to Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the new Moses and the one who fulfills the destiny of Israel. I had never read the story of the Magi in the light of Isaiah 60 before but now it strikes me as quite likely that this OT prophecy was very much in Matthew’s mind as he crafted his narrative.

Isaiah is speaking about Jerusalem, a rich symbol in the Old Testament. As the capital city, the locus of the temple and the seat of the Davidic king in times past, she represents the people of God. The prophet looks forward to her restoration, when she will become a guiding light to the nations. Here she is radiant not because of her own magnificence but because the Lord shines upon her, much like the moon shines in the reflected light of the sun. Read in this light, the star that the magi followed is more than an astrological sign which they are able to interpret; it is the glory of the Lord. It comes to rest, not over Jerusalem, the seat of political and military power in Israel, but over the little town of Bethlehem, birthplace of David, the insignificant shepherd-boy whom God chose to be king. The foreign magi represent the nations that will be drawn to the light of God radiating from this young child. For Isaiah, the caravans bear gold and frankincense, gifts fit for a king. Matthew adds myrrh, a spice that was used in the preparation of corpses for burial. The magi acknowledge Jesus to be king of the Jews, the same title that is used of Jesus at his crucifixion. This is a very different type of king.

Psalm 72 celebrates the king and reminds us what the one who truly rules on God’s behalf is like. He will rule with justice on behalf of the poor and needy. The peace that he brings is the fruit of a just system where the marginalized are given back their voice. This is the exact opposite of the system created by the Romans and their puppet king Herod, where ‘peace’ was attained through the violent suppression of opposition and the elite ruled for their own advantage. The psalm also celebrates the fact that foreign kings will serve God’s king and offer him gifts. The story of the magi at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that God’s king has indeed come and has been recognized. As Christians we also recognize Christ as king, but do we recognize how radically he has redefined notions of power?

St Paul reminds us that inclusivity is at the heart of the mystery of the Christian message. No doubt many who listened to and recited the words about foreign kings paying homage to the Jewish king imagined it as a vindication of their own identity – ‘everyone will have to acknowledge our greatness, embodied in our king’. But St Paul gives us another angle on it: all those who are drawn to the light of God in the person of Jesus Christ, whatever their background, together become the people of God.

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About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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