St Thomas More Letter 49: Magi

Visit of Magi
The brightness, the joy of Christmas is not without shadow.  The visit of the Magi (or Wise Men) to the baby Jesus, and the subsequent murder by King Herod (Herod “the Great”) of the baby boys of Bethlehem, two years and younger, recounted in chapter 2 of St Matthew’s Gospel, has no counterpart in the other Gospels.

According to some, the Magi were from Persia.  This seems a reasonable surmise, though most of what is said about the Magi, beyond what we find in St Matthew’s account, is conjecture.  Certainly, the Magi were not Jews, and so are regarded as symbolising gentiles, all who are not Jews, most of us, you and me.  The Magi had material resources, and possessed wisdom, wisdom enough to seek the King of the Jews, even in the mostunpretentious place.

The term “King of the Jews”, used by the Magi to describe whom they seek, will recur about the time of the crucifixion.  Even at this time of joy, there is a shadow.

Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David. Jesus of Nazareth is a descendant of King David.  So, for faithful Jews awaiting the Messiah, Bethlehem has particular significance.

Feast Days 
The visit of the Magi is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In the east the visit of the Magi is commonly celebrated as the Theophany, God speaking to us, often embracing Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when God says: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Whether Epiphany or Theophany, the feast celebrates God’s loving manifestation.  The feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated earlier on 28 December – as if to remind us not to get too carried away by the joy of Christmas.

In Spain, Los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings), receive letters from children, and, in response, bring gifts on the night before the Epiphany.  There is a Cartero Reyal (Postman) to collect letters for Los Reyes Magos.  Gift-giving takes place at Epiphany rather than Christmas.  Epiphany in Spain involves noisy good-humoured parades, in every village and town.  The Spaniards see themselves as pagans, like the Magi, fortunate to be embraced by the all-loving God of the Hebrews.  The Spaniards see themselves as recipients of God’s revelation to the gentiles.  The Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of children, visiting all the children of Spain in one night.  Children prepare a drink for each of the Magi.  Children also prepare food and drink for the camels.  Each of the Magi is said to come from a different continent: Melchior (Europe); Caspar (Asia); and Balthasar (Africa).  Los Reyes Magos and their servants throw sweets to the children (and grown-ups!) in the crowds who line the streets to watch Los Reyes Magos on their camels.  The Spaniards delight in a good parade!  One does not have to be particularly religious to participate in the tradition! Even the communists love Epiphany!

We Three Kings of Orient Are 
We Three Kings of Orient Are, is a Christmas carol written by John Henry Hopkins in 1957.  Hopkins was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williams Court, Pennsylvania.  Hopkins wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant.  This was the first widely popular carol written in America. The lyrics are:

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorr’wing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.

This carol is today sung around the world, in churches of all denominations, and elsewhere. 

Bring the Tradition Alive 
Customs such as these, as well as the art and music associated with these feasts, bring the tradition alive for both young and old.  They incarnate the Christian tradition.

Hebrew Bible 
Matthew 2 cannot be read without reference to what Christians call the Old Testament, what Jews call the Hebrew Bible or, in its Greek translation, the Septuagint.  At a time when the task of producing words in permanent form to be read was both technically challenging, and expensive, words tended to be chosen carefully, and replete with meaning.  Hence Matthew 2 needs to be read carefully.  No word, no phrase, no sentence is wasted. Everything has meaning, everything has significance.  The Bible is to be read as a whole, not picking out texts, without regard to other parts of the Bible, parts which may illuminate the meaning of a particular text.

The homicidal Herod the “Great” of Matthew 2 has his precursor in the Egyptian pharaoh of Exodus who orders the death of the Hebrew baby boys. The actions of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who feared God, and refused to do as the king of Egypt commanded, are the actions of any decent person, confronted by lawlessness and injustice on the part of those in “authority”.

Book of Wisdom 
An illustration of the need to read the Bible as a whole is the Book of Wisdom, one of the wisdom or sapiential books of the Bible, whose thought is implicit in many other parts of the Bible.  Wisdom was written in the elegant Greek used in the Nile region of Egypt where many Jews lived, about 200 BC, or later.  From the time of the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC Jews had been spread around the known world.  There grew to be a substantial Jewish community in Egypt, in what came to be known as Alexandria.  The Jews of the diaspora were influenced by the sophisticated, largely Hellenistic, culture.  Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, leaving a Hellenistic culture which prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the known world, even as Christianity spread, following the death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Hellenistic Culture 
The Roman conquerors were themselves conquered by the superior Hellenistic culture!  The author of the Book of Wisdom possessed a sophisticated knowledge of both Jewish and Greek culture, and was familiar with the version of the Bible known as the Septuagint.  In the Book of Wisdom, we find an explicit recognition of the human soul, and life after death.  Implicit in the Book of Wisdom is a response to the question: how does one live as a faithful Jew in an environment hostile to one’s faith? how does one accept and cherish the best of Hellenistic culture while remaining a faithful Jew?

Wisdom Books 
Other wisdom or sapiential books include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach.  The wisdom or sapiential books of the Bible are to be distinguished from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the historical books, the prophets.  Yet even in the historical books, there are parts which seem to be more in the wisdom tradition.  King Solomon, the successor to King David, asks for a discerning mind to govern his people, to discern between good and evil.  God gives Solomon wisdom – and much more beside.  Solomon’s wisdom is demonstrated in his deciding the dispute between the two women as to the baby.

There are portions of the New Testament which may regarded as in the sapiential tradition – Jesus’ parables, and the Sermon on the Mount.

Sapiential Tradition
The sapiential tradition is concerned with orienting one’s life to God, through worship and praise, as well as living one’s life well, as part of a community.  The sapiential books respect the human sciences by which we understand creation, and the arts and crafts by which we make use of creation.  The sapiential books respect human wisdom as summed up in Proverbs, and common-sense rules for good living.  The sapiential tradition involves questioning, taking questions to their very limits, as in Job, questioning human suffering, why bad things happen to good people.  The sapiential tradition draws, not merely on the thought of the Jews, but on the wisdom of the Greeks, and of the nations surrounding the Holy Land.

So, the Magi or Wise Men of Matthew 2 can be seen as somehow participating in the wisdom tradition, certainly by their worship of He who St John refers to as the Word made flesh.

Although God revealed himself to the Jewish people, it is clear from the Hebrew Bible that God is the God of all, not merely Jews.  The universalism that is apparent in Christianity has its origin in the Hebrew Bible, for instance, in Isaiah.  That universalism is exemplified in the Magi coming to worship the Child who is God, who expresses God’s love for us, who reveals the human person to himself.

Archbishop Wojtyla 
In a newly discovered series of reflections on St Paul’s encounter with the Athenians at the Areopagus, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), apparently writing in 1965, reflects on the theological anthropology of the Second Vatican Council.  Archbishop Wojtyla reflects on a motif drawn from Gaudium etSpes 22:  Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World which later became a theme of his pontificate:

“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the Father and His love, fullyreveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Finding Oneself Through Self-Giving 
Elsewhere Archbishop Wojtyla refers to Gaudium et Spes 24:

“Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, that all may be one…as we are one, opened up vistas closed to human reason, for he implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons and the unity of God’s children in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that the human being, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

In a sense these anthropological insights of the Second Vatican Council, so important to the future Pope, are the heart of any encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.  No doubt, these anthropological insights are a development of understanding of any encounter with Jesus of Nazareth to be found in the Gospels, expressed in contemporary language.  These insights of the Second Vatican Council are an expression of understanding of the Incarnation.

Encounter with Jesus 
It seems to me it is legitimate in looking back at the various encounters with Jesus in the Gospels to ask how these words of the Second Vatican Council apply to the particular encounter, how this anthropological understanding illuminates the encounter. In the circumstances, how does Christ reveal the person to himself, making the person’s calling clear?  In the circumstances, how does Christ reveal that the person cannot fully find himself except by a gift of himself?

Exceptionless Norms 
The wisdom or sapiential books assume the Ten Commandments, with their exceptionless moral norms, norms which apply always, everywhere, no matter what (while we recognise the exceptions for the commandment regarding the Sabbath where the positive part of the command may not be possible for someone impeded from doing so).  These norms protect human life, marriage and family, property, truth-telling.  These norms prohibit covetousness, putting other things before God.  These norms enjoin respect for God’s name, respect for the Sabbath, respect for one’s parents.  Exceptionless norms, as well as positive norms of human behaviour, as StPaul will point out in Romans, are known by the human reason of both Jew and gentile, as well as being known from God’s revelation.

Book of Wisdom 
The Book of Wisdom enjoins rulers to love righteousness, warning rulers they will be judged and punished for their unjust deeds.  The Book of Wisdom portrays a life beyond death where the souls of the righteous will be in the hand of God, and contrasts this with the fate of the unrighteous. Wisdom enjoins the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance – whose origins are in Hellenistic thought.

Strict Judgment for the Mighty 
The Book of Wisdom admonishes rulers:

Listen therefore, O kings, and understand;
learn, O judges of the ends of the earth.
Give ear, you that rule over multitudes,
and boast of many nations.
For your dominion was given to you from the Lord,
and your sovereignty from the Most High,
who will search out your works and inquire into your plans.
Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly,
nor keep the law,
nor walk according to the purpose of God,
he will come upon you terribly and swiftly,
because severe judgment falls on those in high places.
For the lowliest man may be pardoned in mercy,
but mighty men will be mightily tested.
For the Lord of all will not stand in awe of any one,
nor show deference to greatness;
because he himself made both small and great,
and he takes thought for all alike.
But a strict inquiry is in store for the mighty.
To you then, O monarchs, my words are directed,
that you may learn wisdom and not transgress.

Implicit Contrast Between Magi and Herod 
Although Wisdom is not explicitly referred to in Matthew 2, implicit seems the contrast between the wisdom of the Magi, and the foolishness of King Herod, Herod the “Great”.  The Book of Wisdom outlines a set of criteria by which the actions of the Magi or Wise Men, sometimes referred to as kings, may be contrasted with the actions of King Herod.

Herod the “Great” 
Herod the “Great” came from a non-Jewish (Edomite) family.  He was appointed by the Roman Senate “King of the Jews” in 40 BC to replace the collapsing family of Jewish priestly rulers.  Herod was regarded with disfavour by the Jewish populace. He died in 4 BC, not long after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  On his accession to the throne, Herod murdered some fifty notables.  Herod later murdered his first wife Mariamne, his father-in-law Hyrcanus and mother-in-law Alexandria, three of his sons – Aristobulus, Alexander, Antipater – and numerous subjects.  Herod ordered a massacre of hundreds of Jewish notables to coincide with his death so his death would be accompanied by great mourning. The emperor Augustus drily commented: “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Although the Jewish historian Josephus does not mention the massacre of the Holy Innocents, it was entirely in character.  Relative to Herod’s other crimes, it may have seemed insignificant.

Modern Ruler 
Despite all this, Herod greatly embellished the Temple in Jerusalem.  As Herod also constructed temples to pagan deities, it is reasonable to infer, he was, like many modern politicians, who make a play of being “pious Catholics” when it suits them, but who, at other times, engage in all sorts of inconsistent behaviour, in particular, behaviour that does not respect human life.  Herod was a person of great natural qualities, a shrewd politician, a great builder, responsible for fortresses, palaces, aqueducts, temples, the port of Caesarea, the remains of which can be seen by any visitor to the Holy Land.  In many ways, Herod is a “modern” ruler, pragmatic, utilitarian, above all concerned to enhance his power and position.

Matthew 2 is like a play with 12 parts.

Wise Men from the East
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem saying:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”

As the Ignatius Bible comments, the Wise Men or Magi represent pagans, particularly pagan intellectuals.  We need not be detained by the numerous charming legends as to the Magi. All we know with certainty comes from St Matthew’s Gospel.

Fulfilment of Prophecy 
The coming of the Magi is a fulfilment of the prophecy of the pagan prophet Balaam recounted in Numbers: “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall arise out of Israel”.  All are called to share in the gift of salvation in Christ’s kingdom by receiving the Good News and recognising Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the king of all nations.  Christ’s mission as the Davidic king, establishing the Kingdom of Heaven, is revealed. David was anointed king in Jerusalem, and Bethlehem is a small village, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born there.

The significance of the star, the Ignatius Bible suggests, is that the Magi began their spiritual journey by the revelation of God manifested in nature. Just what the star was is the subject of various opinions. Clearly, it was not a star in the usual sense.

Herod’s Reaction 
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of his people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea’ for so it is written by the prophet:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.”

The Jews looked forward to the Messiah, a common theme in the Hebrew Bible.  Herod was “troubled” as he regarded the baby as a threat to his dynasty. But the kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth is a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom of service, of self-giving.

Herod Summons The Wise Men
Then Herod summoned the Wise Men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

Herod assumes a false piety, seeking to mislead the Magi as to his true intention.  

Star Rests Over the Place Where the Child Was 
When they had heard the king they went their way; and behold, the star which they had seen in the Eastwent before them, till it came to rest where the child was.

According to the Ignatius Bible, after guiding the Magi to the Christ Child, the purpose of the star had ended. Henceforth the light of Christ himself guides the People of God.

Wise Men Worship The Child 
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly, with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

 The Magi, in accordance with Persian custom, did a proskynesis before the baby Jesus, that is they threw themselves on the ground before the divine king.  The gifts the Magi brought are the sort of gifts one might bring to a divine king, not the handy household items needed by an ordinary child.  Gold represents Christ’s divine kingship, frankincense His divine Sonship, and myrrh His humanity, especially His death. Later Nicodemus prepared myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. St Gregory the Great sees gold as Christ’s wisdom, frankincense the prayer and adoration we give Him, and myrrh our daily self-sacrifices.  One might wonder what the baby Jesus would do with gold and frankincense and myrrh – largely useless to the baby Jesus!  The gold could be sold, and perhaps have financed the escape to Egypt. We do not know.  But this was the best the Magi could give! And in coming from the East to this unknown place near Jerusalem, in falling down and worshipping the baby Jesus in the Persian fashion of total prostration, in returning to their country by another way, the Magi gave of themselves. The Magi learnt in their encounter with the baby Jesus they could not fully find themselves except by a sincere gift of themselves.

Contrast with Herod 
Like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Magi pursued the will of God which they made their own. The encounter with the baby Jesus was life-changing for the Magi.  By contrast, Herod pursued his own will, giving nothing but pretence and manipulation, lies and murder – justified in his own mind no doubt by modern-day pragmatism, utilitarianism.

Wise Men Warned In a Dream 
The Wise Men were warned in a dream, and being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

As Bishop Fulton Sheen comments, no one who meets Christ with a good will returns the way he came.  

Angel of the Lord Appears to Joseph in a Dream 
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said:  “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, and to destroy him.”

Egypt at the time had a large Jewish population. Mary was mother to Jesus, and yet a virgin. St Joseph was a real father to Jesus, and took great care of mother and baby.

Departure for Egypt 
“And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

 Originally the Hebrews had taken refuge in Egypt. Later they fled from slavery in Egypt. Christ is thus associated with Moses and the Israelites. Christ frees God’s people from slavery, and leads them from darkness to light.

As recent popes have commented, the Holy Family were refugees, stateless people. If we wish to open our hearts to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we cannot harbour hostility to refugees, to boat people, to economic migrants, to illegal immigrants, to persons out to take the jobs of Aussie workers, whatever the phraseology used to denigrate the humanity of those in need.

Killing Male Children
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

The Church considers the infant boys of Bethlehem the first Christian martyrs. The Assyrians had killed many in Ramah (a short distance from Jerusalem), and the Babylonians used Ramah as a staging point for Jews being taken into captivity in Babylon.

Death of Herod 
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying:  “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s death are dead.”

 The angel’s words to Joseph are very similar to God’s words to Moses, again highlighting Moses and the Exodus as prefiguring Christ. That Joseph responds to the angel’s words, as opposed to simply forming a prudential judgment, demonstrates that all this is the fulfilment of God’s plan.

And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI sees Jesus’ return to the Promised Land from Egypt as the definitive Exodus.

NazarethBut when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.  And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. “He shall be called a Nazarene.”Archelaus was a son of Herod who was appointed by the Romans ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria. Archelaus inherited his father’s characteristics, ruling with a heavy hand. In 6 BC Archelaus was banished by Augustus to Gaul. Archelaus’ younger brother, Herod Antipas, ruled somewhat more benignly in Galilee.
Nazareth is nowhere mentioned in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint. Nazareth was a place of no consequence.

Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast to Herod the “Great”, is the culmination of the wisdom tradition, the truly wiseperson who discloses that one cannot find oneself, except through a complete gift of self. Such gift of self was made by the Magi, when they journeyed to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem; when they prostrated themselves before the baby Jesus in Bethlehem; and when they departed by another way.

I thank all who have contributed to the Society in the past twelve months.  It is impossible to mention everyone.  But I should thank Robert Colquhoun for his masterful management of the Patronal Feast Day Dinner on the Feast of St Thomas More, and his management of the Christmas Party.  I thank Giles Tabuteau for coordinating the Red Mass, something which never ceases to be a challenge. 

I thank Irene Hersk  of Herro Lawyers for her behind the scenes work.   I thank Anthony Herro for providing a secretariat for the Society.  Anthony Herro has retired as Secretary of the Society after many years but will continue to provide the secretariat.  We must all be especially grateful to Anthony.  I thank Matt Lo for organising what now seems a regular delegation from GMP Lawyers, which makes the task of planning any function far easier. 

I thank Tony Lahoud who has maintained the website, sending out Pandemic Letters and other communications.  I thank Isabel Kamlade who has maintained our Facebook presence.  I thank Richard Perrignon who has provided choral accompaniment at the Red Mass and the Patronal Feast Day over many years.  I thank Professor Michael Quinlan who has fostered relations between the University of Notre Dame Law School and the Society, in particular, the mentoring program.  I thank the Society’s Chaplain, Fr Peter Joseph, who continues to save me from many errors.   

On behalf of the Council of the Society I wish you a happy and holy Christmas!

Michael McAuley