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We have been called “A Nation of Seekers”. Whether by covered wagon or moving van Americans have shown a great willingness to pick up for someplace else. This has been not only physical but spiritual as well. The number of sects and fads that we have initiated and the spiritual practices we have practiced over the years bewilders almost everyone else. As this nation of seekers, the Epiphany should be our national feast and the magi celebrated as our great forbears.
Now we need to get two things out of the way immediately. The first is the star. An extraordinary amount of time and effort has been spent in determining when and how this star appeared. Was it a comet, a supernova or the alignment of planets? I neither know nor care. The important thing is the something got these men so curious that they travelled long and far to find the answer.
The second is what would the original readers and hearers have understood about this story? The Gospel writers were able to assume a high level of biblical knowledge when they were composing them. To follow Jesus meaningfully required studying what we call the Old Testament but for them was simply the Bible. Matthew could assume that most of his readers and listeners would know that the city of David was Bethlehem because they knew the passage from the prophet Micah quoted in today’s gospel.
They would also know the story of the prophet Balaam and why a star would lead people from the east to a Jewish King. In the book of Numbers (chap 24) King Balak of the Moabites realized that he must fight the battle-hardened Israelites. He knew he could not win in open combat, so he called the seer Balaam for help. It was thought that Seers not only foretold the future but could change it by blessings and curses. Balaam came from the east with his two assistants to curse the Israelites. However, he could not do it. Every time he tried a blessing came out instead of a curse and, eventually, he prophesied about a great king coming to the Jewish people.
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel (Nu 24:18)
This is a great foreshowing. Balak’s plan to destroy Israel by the pagan Balaam is as unsuccessful as Herod’s to destroy Jesus by the Wise men. Indeed, the Magi by prostrating themselves before Jesus recognize him as a king.
Continuing further in this chapter the Early Christians would also have recognized the references to Moses. Through Joseph being told in a dream to go to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents and the return to the promised land Matthew shows at the very beginning of the Gospel that Jesus will assume all the roles of Moses: teacher, law giver and liberator. Jesus is not the new Moses. Jesus is not the new anyting, he is the new everyting. Jesus is always beyond classification. These references allow us a glimpse of Jesus’ intentions.
Matthew will however use the journey of the Magi to make a characteristic observation that we will refer to many times this year. The star was able to take them only so far. They got to the Holy Land but could not continue. They needed the knowledge of the “chief priests and scribes of the people” to get them to the end.
This had a very specific meaning for Matthew. His community was composed both of born Jews and gentile converts. They did not always play well together. Some believed that Christianity was simply a Jewish sect which should not venture too far from its roots while others held that Christians formed a new religion and should act like one. Matthew was before all else a church leader and he needed to build his community. He had to demonstrate to each “side” that they could learn from the other. He expresses his self-understanding later on in the Gospel:
“Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Mt 13:52).
The Magi represent the gentile seekers who knew there was more to life than they were experiencing and sought out the young Jesus movement. But like the Magi they could only get so far without the tradition of Judaism and most particularly their scriptures. Modern people too can attain a sense of the divine without the Scriptures, but they are absolutely necessary to reach Jesus himself. Prophecies about the place of Jesus’ birth are just the first step. It is in the scriptures that they will find the tools for understanding the meaning of the kingdom, the nature of true happiness and why they, the gentiles, were called. Yet everyone who read this chapter would have understood that the “Chief priests and scribes of the People” failed to heed the message of the Magi. They told them where he was to be found but then stood aside. They clearly needed the enthusiasm and sense of purpose of the Gentiles.
This is the eternal dynamic of Catholicism. St Augustine wrote that “You have made us Lord and our hearts will be restless until they rest in you”. Yet sometimes the very power of our doctrines and beauty of our liturgy can detract us from this inner need. It is good then to have seekers among us to pose questions, sometimes very disturbingly, to us and point fingers, sometimes very accurately, at us.
It has been the custom to portray the wise men as people from a variety of backgrounds and ages. For our society this has been one old, one black, one young. This reflects the reality of the Church in our search. We do not do it alone and we need a community to help us.
When we find the Jesus we have sought and like the Magi kneel before Him, we will decidedly not find ourselves alone and we might be very surprised who is along-side us.