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Matthew 2:1-12 1
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Background

The biblical Magi (or singular: magus), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, were the distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of our Christian tradition.  Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to mention the Magi. Matthew reports that they came “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the statement that they brought three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”.

Although Matthew’s account does not explicitly state the motivation for their journey (other than seeing the star in the east, which they took to be the star of the King of the Jews), the Syriac Infancy Gospel provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the third chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht.

The text in Matthew’s verses specifies no interval between the birth and the visit, and most artistic depictions and the closeness of the traditional dates of December 25 and January 6 encourage the popular assumption that the visit took place the same winter as the birth. However, later traditions varied, with the visit taken as occurring up to two winters later. This time frame is explained by Herod’s command in Matthew 2:16–18 that the Massacre of the Innocents included boys up to two years old. The Magi are mentioned twice shortly thereafter in verse 16, in reference to their avoidance of Herod after seeing Jesus, and what Herod had learned from their earlier meeting. The star which they followed has traditionally become known as the Star of Bethlehem.

There is tradition that the Magi were also astrologers, men knowledgeable about the stars, planets and constellations. This tradition is formed from their desire to follow a “Star,” so bright as to indicate that something great was taking place under it to the East. While it is difficult to apply specific dates to these events, it is thought that the constellation of Leo (King or Lion) was encapsulating the Star of Bethlehem at the time. This would have led the Magi to conclude that a great King would be found under the Star. One theory that exists is that the wandering planet Jupiter and the planet Mars, possibly even other celestial bodies were in a retrograde which aligned as if they were over Bethlehem when viewed from the East. 2.

The theories regarding the gifts generally break down into two:

  1. All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable offering.
  2. The three gifts had a spiritual meaning. Gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East. From a simple manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace through Jesus, and His reasons for coming to earth just get bigger and bigger. Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to Himself through the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace. Through Jesus everyone is reconciled to God.

God’s radical grace is wondrously frightening. The Magi did not come looking for the Jesus through preaching, liturgy, sacraments, a welcoming congregation, or a social ministry. They came seeking Jesus after studying the night skies. God’s message to them was in the heavens. The alternative belief, of course, is to join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace, or being threatened by it, and giving way to just plain fear: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). The prophecy that was fulfilled by the Massacre of the Innocents can be found in Jeremiah 31:15. Herod jealously reached out only to himself, just far enough to violently protect his place and preserve his power. Jesus’ birth offers us both a gift and a choice. We can run from it or run to it, discard it or embrace it. We can follow the Star or remain in the east!

Items for Discussion

  • Is the story of the Star of Bethlehem important to your faith? Why?
  • There are many variants to the Christmas Story. Is it important to have only one story where the facts are in perfect supportable alignment? Why or why not?
  • The Wise Men, the Magi were joyful – what was at the roots of their joy? Why do you think they were in awe of a baby?
  • What significance do you personally place on the “Star of Bethlehem?”
  • When inconsistencies exist in a Biblical story, how to you personally rationalize their purpose?

Discussion Challenge

  • What meaning will the “Star of Bethlehem” have for you on July 4th?
  • While the question above may seem meaningless, it does open one’s mind to why do we constantly relive the story of Jesus’ birth/death and why should humanity care?

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
  2. http://www.bethlehemstar.com/
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