In today’s Gospel, Matthew introduces us to two types of characters: those who seek Jesus but do not know where to look and those who know where to find Jesus but fail to seek.
No one knows if the story of the magi is historically accurate, but Matthew’s narrative has inspired Christian imagination from earliest days. Lavish Byzantine frescoes in Jerusalem and Ravenna depict them as high-ranking Persian dignitaries. Western Christians during the Middle Ages, inspired by Psalm 72, depicted them as kings, complete with crowns and warhorses. Separate traditions among Eastern and Western Christians claim that the magi later became Christians and died martyrs’ deaths. Matthew gives us little information about the appearance or background of the magi but instead focuses on what their actions reveal about Jesus.
In Matthew’s day, the word magi described many different occupations. The word could be used for learned scholars who studied natural phenomena, like the stars. It could also be used for charlatans in the marketplace who dealt in potions and amulets. English takes the word “magic” from the latter description, but Matthew almost certainly meant the former. The magi in today’s Gospel were scholars who believed, as did many in the ancient world, that great events were foretold in the shifting patterns of stars and planets in the sky.
We do not know what phenomenon indicated to the magi that a new king of the Jews had been born. A number of astronomical events, including a return of Halley’s Comet, occurred in the decades surrounding Jesus’ birth, but there is no evidence that Matthew is referring to any of these phenomena in particular. What the Gospel emphasizes is not the star itself but the magi’s response when they recognized what it meant. They gave no thought to expense or danger. They collected gifts for a king and set off, trusting the star to guide them to the goal they sought.
The members of Herod’s court could not stand in greater contrast. The chief priests and scribes knew exactly where to look but showed no interest in finding the child themselves. Herod, meanwhile, suspected that the star heralded “the Christ,” but he treated the newborn babe as a powerful enemy. He spoke to the magi in secret to learn about the star and then sent them, like spies, to bring back intelligence. Although Herod and his counselors knew where to look, in their indifference and fear, they failed to seek.
One of Matthew’s original purposes was to confirm something the early church found a great mystery: that through Christ, God’s covenant with Israel was now open to the Gentiles. This is also the mystery Paul explains in today’s second reading. Matthew’s lessons do not end there, however. The world is full of seekers. Some of these seekers are men and women at the end of their rope, desperate for a liberator, longing for deliverance from poverty, human trafficking, the sex trade, mental illness, war, violence, poverty or injustice. Some are seekers of a different sort, longing not for deliverance but for a life worth living, a life with meaning and depth, with purpose and love.
As Christians, we know that Christ can save every soul and satisfy every longing, and we know where to find him. Christ himself told us to seek him among the poor, to find him where two or more are gathered. We find him in Scripture and in the sacraments and in the Spirit he gives us at our baptism. It is too easy for us to be like the chief priests and scribes in today’s Gospel, indifferent to knowledge that would change the life of another. It is also easy to be like Herod and feel threatened by the presence of Christ, who imperils our ego-driven senses of power, comfort, privilege or security. Today’s Gospel challenges us to be both seekers and guides, to be disciples who seek and find Christ, and then to show others the way.