|Adoration of the Magi by He Qi|
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Second Vatican Council teaches that if we are to derive the true meaning from the sacred texts, attention must be devoted “not only to their content but to the unity of the whole of Scripture, the living tradition of the entire Church, and the analogy of faith. […] Everything to do with the interpretation of Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church, which exercises the divinely conferred communion and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, 12).
St. John Paul II, when he promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church, explained that the Catechism “is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium.” He went on to “declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” (Fidei Depositum).
Cited in the Catechism:
Passages from this Gospel reading are cited in the Catechism, paragraphs 430, 439, 486, 528 and 724.
The adoration of the Magi
2:1. “King Herod”: four different Herods are mentioned in the New Testament. The first is Herod the Great, referred to in this passage and in the next; the second, his son, Herod Antipas, who had St John the Baptist beheaded (Mt 14:1–12) and who abused our Lord during his passion (Lk 23:7–11); the third, Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, who executed the apostle St James the Greater (Acts 12:1–3), imprisoned St Peter (Acts 12:4–7), and died suddenly and mysteriously (Acts 12:20–23). The fourth, Herod Agrippa II, was Herod Agrippa I’s son. It was before him that St Paul answered Jewish accusations when he was a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 25:23).
Herod the Great, who appears here, was the son of non-Jewish parents. He came to power with the aid and as a vassal of the Romans. He was a consummate politician and among other things he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem on a lavish scale. Herod the Great had a persecution complex; everywhere he saw rivals to his throne. He was notorious for his cruelty: he killed over half of his ten wives, some of his children and many people of standing. This information derives largely from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote towards the end of the first century, and it confirms the cruel picture drawn in the Gospels.
“Wise men”: these were learned men, probably from Persia, who devoted themselves to the study of the stars. Since they were not Jews, they can be considered to be the very first Gentiles to receive the call to salvation in Christ. The adoration of the wise men forms part of the very earliest documented tradition: the scene is already depicted at the beginning of the second century in the paintings in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome.
2:2. The Jews had made known throughout the East their hope of a Messiah. The wise men knew about this expected Messiah, king of the Jews. According to ideas widely accepted at the time, this sort of person, because of his significance in world history, would have a star connected with his birth. God made use of these ideas to draw to Christ these representatives of the Gentiles who would later be converted
“The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all” (St John Chrysostom, Hom. on St Matthew, 7). Chrysostom also points out that “God calls them by means of the things they are most familiar with: and he shows them a large and extraordinary star so that they would be impressed by its size and beauty” (ibid., 6). God called the wise men in the midst of their ordinary occupations, and he still calls people in that way. He called Moses when he was shepherding his flock (Ex 3:1–3), Elisha the prophet ploughing his land with oxen (1 Kings 19:19–20), Amos looking after his herd (Amos 7:15).… “What amazes you seems natural to me: that God has sought you out in the practice of your profession! That is how he sought the first, Peter and Andrew, James and John, beside their nets, and Matthew, sitting in the custom-house. And—wonder of wonders!—Paul, in his eagerness to destroy the seeds of Christianity” (St Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, 799).
“Like the Magi we have discovered a star—a light and a guide in the sky of our soul. ‘We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him (Mt 2:2).’ We have had the same experience. We too noticed a new light shining in our soul and growing increasingly brighter. It was a desire to live a fully Christian life, a keenness to take God seriously” (St J. Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By, 32).
2:4. In all Jewish circles at the time of Jesus, the hope was widespread that the Messiah would come soon. The general idea was that he would be a king, like a new and even greater David. Herod’s worry is therefore all the more understandable: he governed the Jews with the aid of the Romans and cruelly and jealously guarded his crown. Due to his political ambition and his lack of religious sense, Herod saw a potential Messiah-King as a dangerous rival to his own worldly power.
In the time of our Lord, both Herod’s monarchy and the occupying Romans (through their procurators) recognized the Sanhedrin as the representative body of the Jewish people. The Sanhedrin was, therefore, the nation’s supreme council which ruled on day-to-day affairs, both religious and civil. The handling of the more important questions needed the approval of either the king (under Herod’s monarchy) or the Roman procurator (at the time of the direct Roman occupation of Palestine). Following Exodus 24:1–9 and Numbers 11:16, the Sanhedrin was composed of seventy-one members presided over by the high priest. The members were elected from three groupings: 1) the chief priests, that is, the leaders of the principal priestly families; it was these families who appointed the high priest (the chief priests also included anybody who had formerly held the high priesthood); 2) the elders, or the leaders of the most important families; 3) the scribes, who were teachers of the Law or experts on legal and religious matters; the majority of these scribes belonged to the party or school of the Pharisees. In this passage of St Matthew only the first and third of the above groups are mentioned. This is understandable since the elders would have no authority in the matter of the birth of the Messiah—a purely religious question.
2:5–6. The prophecy referred to in this passage is Micah 5:1. It is worth noting that Jewish tradition interpreted this prophecy as predicting the Messiah’s exact place of birth and as referring to a particular person. The second text thus teaches us once more that the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
2:8. Herod tried to find out exactly where the Child was—not, of course, to adore him, as he said, but to dispose of him. Such was Herod’s exclusively political view of things. Yet neither his shrewdness nor his wickedness could prevent God’s plans from being fulfilled. Despite Herod’s ambition and his scheming, God’s wisdom and power were going to bring salvation about.
2:9. “It might happen at certain moments of our interior life—and we are nearly always to blame—that the star disappears, just as it did to the wise kings on their journey. […] What should we do if this happens? Follow the example of those wise men and ask. Herod used knowledge to act unjustly. The Magi use it to do good. But we Christians have no need to go to Herod nor to the wise men of this world. Christ has given his Church sureness of doctrine and a flow of grace in the sacraments. He has arranged things so that there will always be people to guide and lead us, to remind us constantly of our way” (St Josemaría Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By, 34).
2:10. “Why were they so happy? Because those who had never doubted received proof from the Lord that the star had not disappeared. They had ceased to contemplate it visibly, but they kept it always in their souls. Such is the Christian’s vocation. If we do not lose faith, if we keep our hope in Christ who will be with us ‘until the consummation of the world’ (Mt 28:20), then the star reappears. And with this fresh proof that our vocation is real, we are conscious of a greater joy which increases our faith, hope and love” (Christ Is Passing By, 35).
2:11. The gifts they offered—gold, frankincense and myrrh—were those most valued in the East. People feel the need to give gifts to God to show their respect and faith. Since they cannot give themselves as a gift, which is what they would wish, they give instead what is most valuable and dear to them.
The prophets and the psalmists foretold that the kings of the earth would pay homage to God at the time of the Messiah (Is 49:23). They would offer him their treasures (Is 60:5) and adore him (Ps 72:10–15). Through this action of the wise men and the offering of their gifts to Jesus, these prophecies begin to be fulfilled.
The Council of Trent expressly quotes this passage when it underlines the veneration that ought to be given to Christ in the Eucharist: “The faithful of Christ venerate this most holy sacrament with the worship of latria which is due to the true God. […] For in this sacrament we believe that the same God is present whom the eternal Father brought into the world, saying of him, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’ (Heb 1:6; cf. Ps 97:7). It is the same God whom the Magi fell down and worshipped (cf. Mt 2:11) and, finally, the same God whom the apostles adored and worshipped (cf. Mt 28:17)” (De SS. Eucharistia, chap. 5).
St Gregory Nazianzen has also commented on this verse, as follows: “Let us remain in adoration; and to him, who, in order to save us, humbled himself to such a degree of poverty as to take our flesh, let us offer him not only incense, gold and myrrh (the first as God, the second as king, and the third as one who sought death for our sake), but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes” (Oratio, 19).
2:12. The involvement of the wise men in the events at Bethlehem ends with yet another act of respectful obedience and cooperation with God’s plans. Christians also should be receptive to the specific grace and mission God has given them. They should persevere in this even if it means having to change any personal plans they may have made.
Source: The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries. Biblical text from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain.
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“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” St Jerome