Sunday Scriptures

Inspired by the Magi

By Father Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz

IT HAS BEEN years since I’ve sent a Christmas card, so long that I can’t even remember just how long it has been.

Way back when I was in the habit of sending them this would be about the time I’d get started. With the commercial Christmas season kicking off the day after Halloween and ending on Christmas Day, I could rationalize my procrastination – at least to myself – as a matter of being thrifty because of deep discounts on Christmas cards to get them off the shelves so that Valentine’s Day cards could take their place.

My front-end excuse to anybody who grumbled about the chronic belatedness of my postal greetings was to remind them that, liturgically speaking, the Christmas season doesn’t end until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. They didn’t buy that, nor did they fall for my sincere but sure-to-fail New Year’s resolution to get the cards out on time next year.

These days, social media innovations like Facebook and Twitter have given me the opportunity for a fresh start for keeping in touch with far-flung colleagues, friends, and family, especially during the Christmas season, and I’ve done a much better job of it. My friends — especially those who are colleagues in biblical studies — and I are fond of sharing cartoons with each other that offer amusing but very mildly irreverent takes on biblical scenes.

A few that I have seen lately provide alternate takes on the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. For example, according to the caption of one Gary Larson cartoon, “Unbeknownst to most theologians, there was a fourth wise man, who was turned away for bringing a fruitcake.”

According to another, “After the three wise men arrived, three wiser women arrived,” bearing not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but fresh diapers casseroles for the week, and lots of formula.”

Yet another asks, tongue-in-cheek, “What would have happened if it had been the three wise women instead of three wise men?” and answers, “The women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts (like diapers!).” Irreverent? Perhaps, but just barely. Corny?

These cross the line from corny to outright lame, but I’ll admit that I couldn’t keep a smile from crossing my face when I first saw them. Mind you, I have long been a major fan of the magi, perhaps a matter of enlightened self-interest that harkens back to childhood memories of the magi leaving gifts for my younger brother and for me. Not gold, frankincense and myrrh, of course, but toys and goodies, their way of expressing gratitude for the grass-filled shoeboxes we had placed under our beds to feed their hungry camels on the long roundabout trek back from Bethlehem.

So who were these magi? They only show up in Matthew’s Gospel, and the evangelist doesn’t say anything about them being either kings or wise men. In the original Greek, they’re called “magoi,” and in the centuries before Christ the Greek historian Herodotus refers to “magoi” as Zoroastrian priests from Persia. By the time of Jesus, the magi had acquired something of a mixed reputation as practitioners of the occult arts, as magicians, priestly diviners and even astronomers.

No Way of Knowing

What’s most important for understanding their place in Matthew’s Gospel is that they were not Jews. As non-Jews, they had no way of knowing about the hope that the Scriptures expressed that God would sent a messiah, an anointed one, a descendant of the great king David, to free Israel from oppression. Yet they found their way to Jerusalem where they asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” and explained, “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

With respect to the star, astronomers at least as early as the famous Johannes Kepler (1614) have diligently sought to identify the phenomenon with all of the astronomical tools at their disposal, with books and articles proposing some new hypothesis continuing to appear year after year. Whatever grain of truth might be found there, it makes better sense to consider the bigger picture, for as Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Scripture itself gives witness to the plan of God as revealed in nature.

As Psalm 33:6 teaches, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” Pope Francis explains, “The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 77).

For this reason, witnessing the plan of God inscribed on the pages of the whole of creation, Pope Francis teaches that “we can ascend from created things to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 77). Psalm 19:1-2 affirms, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”

Reading God’s hand at work in what Pope Benedict XVI called the “Book of Nature,” that is, the whole created order (“Caritas in Veritate,” 51), the magi undertook a journey of discovery that brought them to Jerusalem, where what they had learned by their discernment of the heavens found confirmation in the words of Scripture. The chief priests and the scribes of the people pointed to the words of the prophet Micah, words that suggest how God’s plan is accomplished in unlikely ways and in unexpected places: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2).

The testimony of the Book of Nature — of Creation itself — and the testimony of holy Scripture converged to confirm that the Creator of all things and the sustainer of all life had a plan, and so the magi made their way to the unlikeliest of places, the little town of Bethlehem, as the carol goes, to see what God was up to. There they prostrated themselves before a little child as though before a king, with gifts less appropriate to the child’s humble birth than to his high calling. They offered gifts for the royal heir of David’s line, the King of Kings who came to reign not as Herod did, terror and by bloodshed as a puppet ruler under the yoke of mighty Rome. He reigns still as Prince of Peace, whose uncomfortable throne of glory, as the myrrh reminds us (see Mark 15:23) would be the cross, its cruel victory undone in the resurrection by the plan and power of the Creator of all things, the Sustainer of all the living.

May the journey of the magi inspire us to seek the grace of discernment, the grace to recognize the hand of God at work in surprising ways and in unexpected places, to see God’s life-giving plan at work among us!

Readings for The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13

Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6

Matthew 2:1-12


Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.

 

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