Matthew 2:1-12. The Epiphany or Adoration of the Magi.

David Gerard, Bruges 1512. "Adoration of the Kings."

The term “epiphany” comes from the Greek word, ἐπιφάνεια, for manifestation or appearance.  We celebrate, on this Sunday after Christmas, the manifestation or “making known” of the baby Jesus to the three magi, or astrologers from Persia.

Sunday Gospel readings for this Advent and Christmas season have taken us through the early chapters in Matthew.    The readings so far have this order – Sunday, Dec 5:  Mt 3:1-12.  Sunday, Dec 12: Mt 11:2-11.   Sunday Dec 19: Mt 1:18-24.  Sunday Dec 26: Mt 2:13-23. The passage that is the source of this tradition is Matthew 2: 1-12.

The passage commemorating the Epiphany highlights a few different theological points. First, it is a celebration of the Christ child brought into the world, and acknowledged by the “Wise Men” as the newborn king of the Jews (Mt 2:2).   The Wise Men from the east recognize as king not some secular ruler or powerful despot, but rather a child born in a manger, and to parents of limited means.

On a related note, we have the unusual fact that the “king of the Jews” is a helpless child born into a very humble family.By the standards of first century culture, this is strange.   Jesus cannot lay claim to any privilege of rule under Roman law, since he is not a Roman citizen.   by the standards of Greek culture and philosophy, Jesus is a boy born in the backwaters of Judea, and his family is not well-educated.  The idea of God-become-man (or Jewish child destined to become king) in Jesus is truly preposterous.  In short, there is neither Roman nor Greek influence in the story of the three kings in Matthew.

However, the Evangelist Matthew certainly sees Old Testament symbolism in the birth of Jesus and the visit of the three kings .  The boy David in the Old Testament is something of a prototype for the child Jesus.  David was born into a humble family.  He was a shepherd.   He slew an enemy, Goliath (in much the same may Jesus antagonized Herod);  and David replaced Saul as king.

The account of the three magi and their interaction with Herod is, from Matthew’s perspective,  intended to contrast the illegitimacy of  the rule of Herod the Great (74 – 4 b.c.) with the legitimate kingship of Jesus.    Herod was the longtime, and somewhat maniacal king of Judea.   Herod constructed the seaport of Caesarea Maritima and the fortress at Masada; he extended the water supply system in Jerusalem, and rebuilt the Temple.  He also had the support of the Roman Empire.  By all accounts, Herod had secured his reputation of ruler of all Judea.

But Herod was not a Jew.  He won the throne via intrigue and murder.  Nor was he particularly well-liked by observant Jews, who did not appreciate the idea of a gentile occupying a throne once held by David and Solomon, who built the first temple.

In Matthew 2:2, Matthew tells us that the three wise men asked Herod a very awkward and politically sensitive question:  Where is the newborn king? The importance of Matthew 2:2 cannot be understated, since it did not even occur to the Magi that they may have insulted Herod with their highly impertinent question.   Rather than punish the wise men, Herod sees on opportunity to identify this potential threat to the throne.

In Matthew 2:8, Herod tells the three wise men, Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage. With this statement, Matthew the Evangelist tells us that Herod confirms his own illegitimacy.    And when the three wise men are warned “in a dream” not to return, Herod loses his composure and orders the purported “massacre of the innocents.”

Fabriano. Florence, 1423. "Adoration of the Magi."

The three wise men follow a star towards the birth place of Jesus, and present the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Herod is the clueless “Master of the House” where Jesus speaks of the thief coming in the night in Mt 24:37-44. It is the son of Herod (Herod II) who is responsible for beheading John the Baptist, the prophet who declares, Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!

The cycle of prophetic readings in the Gospel of Matthew, that anticipate the coming of the Messiah, are complete this Christmas with this final account of the Epiphany – the recognition by the Three Wise men that a baby child born to Mary and Joseph is, in fact, a king.  The story of the Magi also sets up the future confrontation between John and Herod, and Jesus and Herod & Pilate.  Is Jesus merely king, or is he the messiah – the savior?  We will have to wait for the public ministry of Jesus to answer that question.

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