Daily Devotional for December 24-30
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.19Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.20But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.21And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”22So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:23“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us.’”24Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife,25and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.
After the story of the annunciation to Joseph, Matthew relates another story, that of the visit of the magi after the birth of Christ. The magi (Gr. magos) were originally members of the Persian priestly class, skilled in ancient sciences such as astrology. By the first century, the term had come to mean often simply a fortuneteller, a cheap charlatan (thus Elymas the magos in Acts 13: 6). These magi, however, were venerable men, seekers after eternal and universal truth. In every land God has those who seek Him, though He may be concealed under a variety of names, and these magi were such seekers. Their number is not given. Chrysostom and Augustine supposed there were twelve, while others (because of three kinds of gifts listed) supposed there were three. They dwelt in the east, though exactly where in the east is also not stated. Some thought Persia (because of their historical origins there), and others, Arabia. There was a large Jewish population in Babylon, from whom the magi could have learned messianic ideas, and this is perhaps the best guess as to their land of origin.
Wherever they first dwelt, they saw a great wonder in the heavens, a star (that is, a heavenly light), and they naturally assumed that such a heavenly wonder was a portent of a corresponding earthly one. Just as a great star was born in the sky, so a great king must have been born on the earth. In those days, expectation was widespread of a coming golden age brought by a mighty king. Perhaps it was because Jewish ideas about Messiah had spread into the surrounding cultures, but (as the Roman historian Suetonius wrote in his Life of Vespasian), “There had spread over all the east an established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” When the magi saw the star and thought it to be the natal star of a great king, it was natural for their eyes to turn to Judea.
We may ask what this “star” was. Some have thought it a special angelic manifestation, appearing in the form of a star. This is possible, but it is notable that about 7 BC there was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, joined a year later by Mars, making a brilliant spectacle in the night sky…Whatever heavenly light they saw, they took it to mean the birth of a great king, and so they arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star at its rising, and have come to worship him.” Thinking that the world-ruler from Judea had been born, they naturally supposed him to be born to the Jewish royal family, the ruling house of Herod, and so they went first to Jerusalem, where Herod was. Their intention was to pay the respects appropriate for the newborn sovereign, prostrating themselves before him with the homage due a king, and to see this sight for themselves. (The word rendered worship, Gr. proskuneo, h…As soon as they entered the city and the news of their local inquiries reached Herod, he was shaken, and all Jerusalem with him. The city was bubbling with anticipation (compare 21: 10), and Herod himself (famous for his murderous paranoia) was troubled at the thought of a rival. Herod accordingly summoned all the chief-priests (that is, the ruling families of the capital) and scribes to a hastily called conference. There he began inquiring of them where the Christ was to be born. The reported questions of the magi about the King of the Jews could mean only one thing— that Messiah had been born— and not to the family of Herod! Where was this rival to the power of his house? Jewish tradition was clear: Messiah, as the descendant of King David, was to be born in David’s hometown, Bethlehem of Judea.
Learning that a rival king was born in Bethlehem, Herod needed to know when the Child had been born and precisely where He was now. He therefore covertly called the magi to visit him in his palace. Entertaining his foreign guests with royal hospitality and feigning Jewish piety, from them he learned exactly the time of appearing of the star— and therefore the age of the Child. (It took a year or so for the magi to prepare for travel and to make the journey from their land to Palestine.) Herod therefore asked them to go and inquire exactly about the Child, checking with the locals of Bethlehem to discover His present whereabouts, and when they had found Him, they were to return to Herod and declare it to him, that he himself also may come and worship Him, paying his pious respects. Whether Herod’s reputation for treachery and cruelty was known to the magi is unclear. They had, we may think, no reason to doubt Herod. Certainly they were at his mercy, and it was not safe to openly defy him. When they left Herod, they went away, intent on making the short five-mile journey south to Bethlehem. It appears that it was evening when they left, and behold (the word indicates a surprising event), the star which they had seen at its rising went before them, until it came and stood still over where the Child was.
When they saw the star, they knew that their goal was at hand, and they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. It would seem that after the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth of Christ (Luke 2: 1– 7) they stayed in Bethlehem, obtaining a house there. (Mary’s tarnished reputation would have added no incentive to return to Nazareth.) After the visitation of the angels to the shepherds and the shepherds’ telling their tale to all who would listen (Luke 2: 8– 20), the Holy Family would possess a certain local notoriety, and their location would not be hard to discover.
The magi therefore found the Holy Family and came into the house where they were staying. They saw the Child with Mary His Mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him as they had planned. Opening their treasures from chests they had carried, they offered up to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Legend has adorned these gifts with mystical significance, seeing in the gold a sign of Christ’s royalty, in the frankincense evidence of His deity, and in the myrrh (used for burials) a sign of His saving death. Wonderful and insightful as these interpretations are, they were likely not in the mind of the magi. For them these gifts represented simply precious festive tokens, fit to offer a king. Gold was always worthy for a king (compare Ps. 72: 15), as was frankincense (Is. 60: 6), and myrrh, along with aloes and cassia, was used as a fragrant perfume (Ps. 45: 8). (What the Holy Family actually used the gifts for, we do not know. I suspect they were sold for the expenses of relocating to Egypt and returning.) The magi, after their visit to the Child and His Mother, in a dream were warned by God (Gr. chrematizo, used of a divine pronouncement or divine oracle) that they should not turn back to Herod. God, who had communicated to Joseph in a dream (1: 20), now spoke to these Gentiles in the same way. Obediently they withdrew to their own region by another way, not returning to declare the Child’s location to Herod as he had asked them to do.
St. Matthew is concerned to demonstrate the universality of the gospel. Though thoroughly Jewish, the gospel is meant for all the nations (28: 19). In the magi, God first reveals His love for the Gentiles, allowing them too to hear His voice, using such methods of revelation as they would listen to. The magi themselves may have intended not adoration for the Child, but only royal homage. Matthew, however, sees in their prostrations a prophecy and promise of the day when all the Gentiles will fall down before Christ in true adoration and worship. The magi therefore are presented as the firstfruits from among the nations, a sign that all the world will one day hail the King of the Jews as their own King and Lord. A final word may be added about the significance of the star. The Fathers are emphatic that the natal star of Bethlehem does not justify pagan astrology, or the idea that the stars in heaven rule the fortunes of men on earth. Rather, the star represented God’s condescension in speaking to the Gentiles in a language they could understand. This was a special star, a unique occurrence. God used the star (or conjunction of planets, or whatever it was) to accomplish His purposes, even as Christ used spit and mud as the instruments of healing for the blind man (John 9: 6).
God therefore warned Joseph of the impending search-and-destroy mission while Herod was yet preparing for it. Joseph was bidden to take refuge in Egypt, the place of refuge for Jews for many centuries (see 1 Kings 11: 40; 2 Kings 25: 26). At this time there was a large Jewish community in Egypt, and the Holy Family could find refuge there. Joseph lost no time in fleeing, even leaving by night so as not to attract attention or let the direction of his flight be known. They were all to remain there until the death of Herod, when it would be safe to return. Where in Egypt they settled is not said, though there was a sizable Jewish diaspora in Alexandria.
This, St. Matthew says, fulfilled the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Hos. 11: 1), “From Egypt I have called My Son.” (Matthew’s citation in the Greek agrees more with the Hebrew version than it does with the Septuagint; the Septuagint speaks of calling “Israel’s children,” whereas the Hebrew speaks of calling “My Son.” Though Matthew would use the Greek Septuagint for its international appeal, it seems his heart was in the original Hebrew.)