The Visitation of the Magi – Matthew 2: 1-12
What we do and do not know about this story which has been re-imagined into something that it is not. Nowhere does the text mention three visitors – three gifts, but simply no number of visitors are mentioned. Some traditions simply assume three gifts must mean three visitors. No doubt this was a caravan including the magi, servants, drovers, animals.
And the Greek text calls them magi, not kings. Elsewhere in the New Testament magi is translated as magicians. Only in Matthew are they referred to as “wise men,” which undoubtedly magi of those days really were. Typically in those days, magi referred to followers of Zoroaster, but then, we don’t want to open that door since it would suggest some sort of inter-faith cooperation and recognition. Although it is worth observing that at the moment in time described it appears as if there may be only Jews and Zoroastrians present in the house.
That’s right. A house. No stable, no inn, no cave. This group of however many magi enter a house where they find only two people: Mary and the child. No Joseph, no shepherds (only in Luke), no animals. Mary and the child. In the house.
These magi have somehow divined, we are not told how (Tarot Cards?), that this child is to be King of the Jews. Herod, we are told, is frightened by this news. We are not told why. It’s assumed that the reader/listener would know: Herod, and line of Herods at that, has been appointed by Caesar to be just that – King of the Jews.
What often reads as a lovely story of searching, seeking, finding and gift giving suddenly turns dark. There is a pretender to the throne? Herod, his family being converts to Judaism, seeks counsel with those who actually know the ancient scriptures. Snatching a verse from the prophet Micah, chapter 5, verse 2, the counselors suggest Bethlehem may be the place to look.
Is that what Micah says? Well yes and no. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread” since that region was the breadbasket of Israel. Bread, manna, has always been at the center of the story. And what does the child who is called by some “The Bread of Life,” teach us to pray for? Bread that is given daily. Bethlehem,also the home of King David, which is pointed out by the prophet to be “the least of the clans,” in Matthew’s hands becomes, “by no means least,” which suggest greatest. David was the least of his brothers, a ruddy little runt of a shepherd, yet a mighty and revered king. Flawed for sure, but less so than others and a sure improvement upon his predecessor and Israel’s first king, Saul.
Herod, upon hearing that there is some possible scriptural warrant for a new King of the Jews commissions the magi to seek out this king and report back on his location “so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Can we imagine the sneer on his face and the menacing tone in his voice? The darkness thickens. The plot takes shape. The magi see through this ruse. They are very wise indeed, for after visiting the mother and child and offering their peculiar gifts, “they left for their own country by another way.” They know what is in the cards. Not only will Herod kill every available child in the region in hopes of denying this new king from displacing him, but surely the magi know already how it’s seemingly going to end on a cross outside Jerusalem on Mount Calvary.
The star. Perhaps the star is the star of this tale. This mysterious star by which light the magi make their journey. It’s light shines through the darkness to reveal the child who is light and life for the world. Whose light shines in the darkness and which the darkness did not and does not overcome. Was the light in the sky over the house? Or, did this light emanate from the child himself to show them the way? To show us the way? We will just have to accompany the magi on their journey and see for ourselves.