As we near the end of the Christmas season, today’s readings remind us to be guided by the light of Christ throughout the year.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star. (Mt 2:10)
How can I welcome all people into the Christian
What signs in my life can bring me closer to God?
Do I recognize corrupt intentions and work to promote truth and honesty in the world?
In the first reading from Isaiah, Judean exiles return home after their forced removal to Babylon. The reading celebrates their arrival by highlighting the city of Jerusalem as their guiding light. On the first Sunday of Advent, the readings spoke of walking in the light of Christ (Is 2:5) and putting on the armor of light (Rom 13:12). Light imagery reminds ancient and modern readers to lead lives focused on God. Similarly, according to Isaiah, the city of Jerusalem will be visited by various people who will bring gold and frankincense and offer praise to the Lord. Matthew’s description of the magi’s journey and their gifts in today’s Gospel parallels this passage from Isaiah.
Matthew’s infancy narrative also includes the story of King Herod’s insecurity and deception. Herod, the Jewish client king installed by Rome, is visited by the magi, astronomer-priests from the East looking for Jesus. Herod considers this a risk to his political authority. Shrewdly, though unsuccessfully, Herod attempts to use the magi and prod them for information about Jesus’ whereabouts. Unfazed, the magi follow the light of a star, joyfully offer gifts and return to their home country, avoiding Herod on the way. Like Joseph (Mt 1:20), the magi receive dreams as vehicles of divine revelation (Mt 2:12).
The feast of the Epiphany celebrates this occasion as an acknowledgement by Gentiles of the significance of Jesus. Because the magi are from the East, it is assumed that they were not Jewish. The second reading from Ephesians supports this notion, as “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (Eph 3:6). The magi can represent the openness and universality of the Gospel.
It is unclear if Matthew’s narrative reflects a known historical event or if it was a literary invention useful for the larger message of the Gospel. The traditions in Matthew 2 are not found in the other Gospel accounts, but they fit well with Matthew’s interest in establishing Jesus’ Jewish heritage while affirming Jesus as the Messiah for all people. The tradition of three magi is connected to the three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew does not give exact numbers or names for these visitors. Their offerings may reflect traditional gifts brought to royalty, or they could signify aspects of Jesus’ identity. Gold may represent Jesus’ royal lineage as a descendant of David. Frankincense may reflect Jesus’ priestly role, as incense is used in ritual contexts. Frankincense and myrrh were also used in burial rituals, which could speak to Jesus’ humanity and death.
Throughout the year, we can be inspired to act in the manner of the magi. They were faithful along their journey and joyfully paid homage to Jesus. The magi also worked against the duplicitous actions of a political leader in order to fulfill God’s will. Let us be brave in the face of corruption and follow our guiding light to draw nearer to the Lord.