Where did the star come from?
(Part Two of Infancy Narratives)
Early in January we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. We also call it the “Manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles”. God reveals himself to us using all sorts of ways; people who touch our lives, a text from the Scriptures. Every moment of grace can be called an Epiphany: a conversion, a new insight, a new stage in our spiritual growth. Hopefully, we recognize these moments of grace and respond to the loving touch of our God.
Many people have tried to explain the presence of the star. Some think it was Haley’s comet and others the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn. I am afraid they are not going to find this star because they have forgotten that the Church has advised us to take note of the kind of literature we are reading. The literary form used here by Mathew is ‘midrash’. This is an ancient Jewish form of writing. The author takes a text from scripture and weaves a story around it. He uses the text and story to give us a deeper understanding of a truth.
Matthew is appealing to his Jewish brothers and sisters to see in Jesus, God’s fulfillment of the promise he made through Michah.
“But you Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, …. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord….. …. he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” Micah 5: 2 – 5.
Take note that our evangelist quite happily adapts the texts he uses to better bring out the point he is making. Let’s compare what we find in Micah to Matthew’s version.
“And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Now that we know what we are dealing with let us return to the star. In ancient times when people set out to write about the powerful and famous they often told of a star that appeared at their birth. Of course there was no star and they invented one because they were writing with the knowledge of the person’s achievements. Matthew also knew what an extraordinary person Jesus turned out to be, and so there had to be a star.
The “magi”, were not kings.
They were astrologers who claimed to be able to interpret the movement of the stars and were not held in high regard. It is these gentiles who respond to the ‘star’ signifying to birth of the saviour. In this story all the Jewish authorities, Herod, the chief priests and the scribes were ‘greatly troubled’. This reminds us of how some people reacted to Jesus in his adult life.
Matthew’s midrash is rich in references to other sacred texts.
As Jesus commences his ministry Matthew quotes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Is 9: 2 Mt 4: 16
The events in this story have a challenge for us. Later in the Gospel we read, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” 21: 43
The Magi were overjoyed at the sign of Jesus’ birth just as the disciples were, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” 13: 44
The wise men gave precious gifts. In just the same way the disciples offer their very selves.
“He called them and immediately they left their boats and their father and followed him” 4: 22
“He touched her hand, and she rose and waited on them.” 8: 15
Here Peter’s mother-in-law joyfully undertakes to work of a disciple. “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 5: 19
We presume that there were three wise men because there were three gifts. However the text makes no mention of how many there were.
It is the significance of the gifts that is most important. Their meaning and significance could only come from a person who has a deep faith that they have come to after having experienced Christ Risen. The gold tells us about the Kingship of Jesus. The frankincense reveals the Divinity of Jesus. Myrrh was used for anointing the dead. This confirms that Jesus was fully human.
The Magi journey home, after having been instructed to do so in a dream. We too are being called to journey with the Word, growing in our understanding and love of God.