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The Mystery of the Magi

The Magi play a vital yet enigmatic role in the Christmas story.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

All that we know of the Magi is contained in the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel. The other evangelists never mention them. They entered Judea by one road and left by another; we are not told where they came from, or where they are going when they left. Popular tradition in the West tells us that there were three Magi, and even gives them names, yet nowhere does Matthew mention their number or what they were called. Nor does Matthew say that they were kings; this too is part of tradition and not part of the gospel. For centuries the Magi have been beloved figures in the Christmas story, often depicted in paintings, sculptures and stained glass, and celebrated in song. Yet in some respects they remain a kind of holy riddle.

There is no question that the Magi are an important part of Matthew’s gospel, but the lack of historical information about them has led Biblical scholars to examine more closely the story of the Magi and to interpret it in new ways. It is possible that Matthew intended the visit of the Wise Men to be understood not as an eyewitness account of an actual historical event, but as a symbol illustrating the fulfillment of prophecies about Christ.

The Jewish tradition of scriptural study, which formed Matthew’s background included a literary device called midrash. The term refers to the discussion and sometimes the embellishment of a sacred text in order to make it more readily understood. Midrash might introduce fictional elements in order to show how the text applied to everyday life. Through midrash, the Word of God was interpreted in such a way that ordinary men and women could comprehend it and live by it.

Applying the principles of midrash to the story of the Magi opens up new avenues of understanding. Matthew might have designed the episode to draw parallels between the birth of Christ and certain prophetic events in the Old Testament. Thus Matthew would help his readers to identify Christ as the Redeemer whose coming had been foretold.

Among the ancient prophets who prefigured the Messiah is the towering person of Moses. As he delivered his people from bondage in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, so too would Christ deliver His people from the bonds of sin and lead them to the kingdom of God. In the Biblical account of the birth of Moses, astrologers announce the event to Pharaoh. Matthew might have introduced Wise Men who followed a star and announced Christ’s birth to Herod in order to emphasize Christ in the aspect of the new Moses.

The New Testament also describes Christ as the Wisdom of God personified. Matthew may have wished to stress the identification of Jesus with divine Wisdom by drawing a parallel between the visit of the Magi and the visit of the Queen of Saba to Solomon in 3 Kings 10. In the Hebrew mind, the name of Solomon was virtually synonymous with wisdom. The Old Testament narrative tells how the Queen of Saba undertook a journey to discover whether Solomon was truly as wise as she had been told. Like the Magi, she bore precious gifts for the king, including gold and spices, and when she found him to be wise beyond all men she paid him homage. Jewish midrash on the story of Solomon and the Queen also relates that the Queen saw a brilliant star in the sky and followed it until she came to the Holy City. The similarities to the story of the Magi are unmistakable.

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Christ Himself refers to the Queen’s visit to Solomon. The evangelist may have wished to draw the attention of his audience to this visit in the beginning of his narrative in order to impress upon them the identity of Jesus as Wisdom far surpassing that of Solomon.

There is, of course, yet another possibility: that the Magi were actual historical persons who followed a bright star or comet until they found the Infant King. Astronomers report that Halley’s comet made an appearance in 12 B.C., the same year that Herod celebrated the completion of Caesarea Sebaste with a festival to which foreign dignitaries were invited. Were the Magi among the guests? Did they follow the “star” – in reality the comet – to Bethlehem? It might have happened exactly this way.

But whether the Magi really existed is not the important point; they are significant for the things they symbolize. Through the Magi episode, Matthew shows Christ manifesting His divinity to the Gentiles; from this we learn that Christ came to save all men and to establish a universal Church. Matthew hints that the Magi traveled a great distance “from the East,” and many tales and works of art represent them undertaking a long and arduous journey across the desert, with only the star for direction. So too must all men seek Wisdom and Truth, sometimes at great sacrifice but always guided by the providence of God. It is in this light that we must understand the Magi, realizing that, like them, all who seek the King will find Him.

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