Seekers of the Light
The story of the Magi has been a favourite for generations. Foreign dignitaries came to honour the newly born King of the Jews. For Matthew, however, the story had highly charged political overtones. For during the time of Jesus, the Persian Magi opposed the eastward expanse of the Roman Empire. Through the juxtaposition of political foes, Matthew communicated his theme. Foreigner seekers would recognise the Jewish Messiah but the leadership in Jerusalem would not. This theme foreshadowed the opposition of the leadership against the ministry of Jesus, and its parallel in the time of Matthew: the opposition of the Pharisees to the new Christian communities.
The scene began with the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem. People then believed the stars and constellations revealed the will of the divine. The night sky took on a spiritual dimension. The connection between the stars and the affairs of humans produced a class of astrologer-sages, wise men who studied the stars. Even the temples of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq), home to the Magi, were built to observe the night sky. The presence of these stargazing, foreign sages in the Jewish capital caused consternation. Why were these unclean foreigners present? What did they want? [Matthew 2:3]
This question also caused concern for King Herod as foreign dignitaries were visiting a new born King of the Jews – someone so important, His destiny for them was written in the stars. Herod felt threatened that there would be a new king and so the present administration could be declared illegitimate. God’s chosen one was here and the old corrupt leadership would be swept away! The Magi and their question represented not only a threat to the king but to the Temple leadership and city fathers, and to Roman occupation. [2:1-2]
In his panic, King Herod consulted the religious leaders, the chief priests and teachers of the Law. He also called the Magi into a private meeting to find out the details of where this new King had been born. Herod’s request to follow the Magi and honour the new king was so transparent and dubious, the wise men had no obligation to partake in his shameful actions. [2:7-8, 12] In the end, the Magi did the right and honourable thing and followed their calling. According to ancient protocol, they approached, bowed, and honoured the young king and His mother with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was the international currency. Frankincense was a pricey, imported incense made from the sap of a tree. And myrrh was the sweet-smelling resin of an Arabian scrub that was used for medical uses and for the preparation of a body for burial. Since God had revealed His will in the stars to them, He also warned them of Herod’s intent through a dream, another ancient avenue to receive divine will. [2:9-12]
The feast of Epiphany on Friday (a day of obligation) celebrates the revelation of Christ to the pagan nations. The Magi came to seek the newly born King, the one who would be a light to the nations. We might reflect that their encounter foreshadowed the evangelisation success that Christianity would have among pagan people who hungered for God’s truth.
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