One of the most charming Christmas stories relates the visit of the Magi, the three “wise men” or “Kings of Orient” (as in the song) to worship Jesus. The popular account has them following the star from Persia to the Bethlehem stable to offer the newborn infant king their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Countless Christmas plays have featured exotically dressed foreigners, including a black king, to festoon Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and livestock in their creche. The story from St. Matthew’s Gospel illustrates the universality of the Christian message of love, joy, and renewal. In Jesus the world finds a “king” who unites the humble and the high in common worship.
The full story, while brief, has a darker side, which I will explore, offering rich political instruction, a kind of tutorial in comparative politics. Throughout his ministry Jesus shunned identification as a political savior, with the “King of the Jews” mockery bestowed on him posthumously.
Thus, the crucifix, with its derisive placard INRI (“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”) above his battered head, warns Catholics of the difference between secular kingship and Christ’s divine kingship. Ridicule and violent death can be the Christian’s worldly reward.
The second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (about two pages) sets forth the political lesson the evangelist wished to convey. In contrast with the dreams that instructed Mary and Joseph, the Magi learned their duty from science, their study of astronomy, though some call the Magi astrologers. Cosmic calculations set them on a months-long journey to see the King of the Jews. The text (using the Revised Standard Version with alternative translations in brackets) compactly presents the exotic visitors:
Now when [after] Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold Wise Men [Magi] from the East came to Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews [a Gentile expression]? For we have seen his star [rising] in the East, and have come to worship him.’
As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis observes, in his magnificent, four volume, 2400-plus pages commentary on Matthew, “The clash of titles between Christ’s divine kingship and all self-serving human authority emerges at once, and it is the more impressive as it is announced naively (and how wisely?) by foreigners who are not prejudiced by local politics.” (Fire of Mercy, vol. 1, emphasis mine).
Apparently the same time the angels spoke to Mary and Joseph, the Magi, who were not Jews, saw a physical sign, a rising star in the East. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his slim but engaging book, The Infancy Narratives, that the Magi may have been familiar with the notorious pagan prophet Balaam’s predictions (Numbers 24) about a star rising in the East. The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484-425 BC) wrote about the politically significant Median tribe of magicians and dream interpreters called Magoi. It’s not so much the question how the “wise men” found Jewish messianism in spectacular natural phenomena but rather why they needed the star to tell them that God’s plan was unfolding in Jerusalem. The city where King David was born might surely be the place of his true heir’s birth. Where else would Judaism’s revival take place but in its most holy city? The physical star gave only part of the story.
Moreover, the “wise men” were lucky to escape Herod’s sword, having stirred up the city and brought up the issue of Herod’s claim to rule. The historic Herod may not even have been Jewish, having been picked by the Romans to rule the region. Even worse, these “wise men” were either ignorant or heedless of Herod’s sensitivities (not to mention his depravity, having executed his two sons on suspicion of their disloyalty). These “wise men” seem totally distant from politics altogether, not just the local scene. One is reminded of American strategists on the Middle East.
But the evil Herod actually rescues the Magi’s mission by making them his spies. He appoints a commission of scripture scholars who conclude(Micah 5:2, among other sources) that the Christ is to be born in “Bethlehem of Judea” (to distinguish it from other Bethlehems). Their version slightly alters the biblical texts to favor Bethlehem. Herod “secretly” orders these blundering “wise men” to go and “search diligently” for the child and then bring him word so he ostensibly may worship him. (Ratzinger notes the apparent indifference of the scholars at the magnitude of this discovery, but it is more likely Herod forbade their going to Bethlehem.) This is the first human speech recorded in Matthew, and it deceptively masks evil intent. Many others like it will follow. These “wise men” in particular must have been dispirited by their recruitment as spies.
The Gospel’s full account, together with all its rich suggestions, only somewhat disrupts the popular account of the Magi with its one continuous, triumphant trek from the East to Bethlehem. They needed the second star, or its second manifestation, with its unnatural behavior. From the perspective of the entire Gospel, we see this star as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. (If this is indeed the same star, it acts differently. Why did the first star need to stop over Jerusalem and therefore give Herod a role in Christ’s life?) Without a layover in Jerusalem and no second or redirected star, Christians might have concluded there can be a purely scientific solution to the human question, one disconnected from Scripture. They might have been tempted to look for a gnostic solution and reject any place for a Scriptural complement.
The good news of Christianity reminds us that evil is a part of human life, which is why God came into the world. Christianity rejects a mechanistic view of human conduct. As free men and women, we cannot expect God to excise the evil Herod from human history—as the forthcoming Massacre of the Innocents teaches us.
The sight of the star is a cause of great rejoicing by the Magi. Whatever happens they are free of Herod. St. Matthew’s Magi arrive some time after St. Luke’s shepherds, for they find the child and mother in a house, not a stable or cave. The infant Jesus attracts both the great and the humble, the exotic and the local. The Magi, on seeing the child, worship the newborn King. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh reflect royalty, divinity, and suffering. But did they finally understand whom they were worshiping?
Immediately, the Magi story concludes with a dream, a first divine intervention for them, warning them not to go to Herod but to return to their country by “another way.” If nothing else, the dream puts the fear of God into the “wise men”; and we can imagine their joy in retelling their encounter with the newborn King of the World and his mother and earthly father to the Gentile world. Some interpreters, maintaining the Magi practiced “black magic,” argue that the presence of the infant Jesus made them renounce those dark arts and convert.
Herod, likely now cursing himself for not having killed the baby earlier, demands more security for his kingship and slaughters all the baby boys of Bethlehem under the age of two. This “massacre of the innocents” (not otherwise reported in any contemporary source) is celebrated by Catholics on December 28 as a saints’ day honoring these first martyrs for Christ.
I would suggest the addition of another baby to these Holy Innocents—the son of David and Bathsheba, who died after birth, a sign of God’s wrath concerning this product of his adultery and his arranging the death of her husband. Jesus had escaped early violent death by yet another dream of his earthly father, directing Joseph to take the boy to Egypt.
The dreams of the early pages of St. Matthew’s Gospel do not require the putative interpretive skills attributed to the Magi. In drawing on the science of their time, they went wrong, almost tragically so, in not having examined the divine ancestry of this “king of the Jews.” Ratzinger makes the converted Magi a symbol of western civilization’s struggle against its enemies, “Not only do they represent the people who have found their way to Christ: they represent the inner inspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religious and human reason toward him.” Or, as Leiva-Merikakis puts it, “For the wise man, the goal of reflection is adoration.”