Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
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."
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
"Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
Early Christian communities quickly realized they were in on a secret. Not only had they experienced the risen Jesus in their daily lives, but their encounter with him/her made them privy to something they’d never before noticed. The author of the letter to the Ephesians expresses their insight in classic terms: “Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” What people of God once thought to be just the prerogative of Jews, they now understood to belong to everyone on the face of the earth. A tremendous eye-opener! “Things” could never be the same.
Of course, not everyone saw reality through such wide-open eyes. Many of their friends and neighbors still insisted some people were, by nature, better than others, just as they themselves once presumed they were superior to and more chosen than others. But because of their encounter with the risen Jesus, they gradually began to understand all people are chosen by God to carry out God’s will.
This new way of looking at reality sprang from an insight that the risen Jesus they encountered was not a Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. They were coming into contact with a “new creation.” Instead of limiting their experiences; the risen Jesus infinitely expanded them.
As we hear in our Third-Isaiah passage, the prophet believes Gentiles can receive the same perks as Jews, with one condition: they have to convert to Judaism. The non-Jewish nations and kings to whom the prophet refers, will first have to walk by Yahweh’s light. They’re not strictly going to be saved as Gentiles.
This flies in the face of today’s magi narrative, as long as you don’t make these travelers kings, and completely lose the message Matthew is trying to convey by inserting them into his infancy narrative. (A narrative, by the way, in which Joseph and Mary don’t travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Matthew has no Roman census. He presumes the “Holy Family” already lives in Bethlehem.)
Matthew wants his Jewish-Christian community to reflect on who these unexpected Bethlehem visitors really are. They’re not just Gentiles; they’re Gentiles engaged in a profession - astrology - for which, according to Jewish law, they’re to be summarily executed. Yet, though they discover Jesus through forbidden means –star gazing – they actually do something with their discovery. On the other hand, the Chosen People’s experts, Herod’s “chief priests and scribes,” refuse to follow their own Scriptures, and travel the few miles from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem. They’re employing acceptable, Jewish means to discover “the newborn king of the Jews,” yet they never actually come face to face with him. Only the most unlikely people in the neighborhood pull off that feat.
Though I’ve never heard any commentator discuss the topic, it seems these astrologers continue to practice their astrology after they leave Bethlehem. Matthew simply says, “They departed for their country by another way.” They didn’t even have to convert to Christianity to have had an experience of Jesus!
The only thing necessary to experience Jesus is hidden away in one of their gifts: myrrh. Dr. Irvin Arkin once asked, “What would go through your mind if someone gifts you with a bottle of embalming fluid for your birthday?” In Jesus’ day and age, myrrh was usually employed for anointing the dead. The magi’s gift of myrrh can only prefigure Jesus’ death. That seems to be part of the secret we share. Jew or Gentile, if we expect to recognize the risen Jesus among us we must be willing to die to ourselves. If we don’t, we’re going to be following stars in vain for a long time.