January 6, 2019
Matthew’s narrative of the adventures of an ambiguous party of magi with three specific gifts leaves open any number of vexing questions. Who were they — scholarly ambassadors from distant royal courts, sorcerers and magicians, wisdom figures who studied the heavens and charted the stars? Where was their home? How politically naïve were they to not foresee the potential consequences of their inquiries?
The juxtaposition of the readings in the lectionary for this feast reminds us of the influence of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 on the centuries of interpretation of Matthew’s text. Read through the lenses of Is 60: 1-6 and Psalm 72, the Magi become kings, the number of visitors is set at three — in part because of the number of gifts, camels enter nativity scenes, and speculation about their exotic identity ranges from Persia to Ethiopia, to Babylon, to Arabia, and even to the Iberian Peninsula. Lack of specific details fuels popular imagination, but at the same time, such traditioning does not necessarily miss profound theological insights.
The seeds of what is to come are sown throughout this narrative. The query about the “newborn King of the Jews” (2:2) at the beginning of the gospel reappears in the passion narrative inscribed as the charge over the crucified body: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). Frankincense and myrrh were resins used not only in sacred rites but in healing as well as embalming. The revelation to the Magi upon the rising of a star ends on a fearful note with a warning to avoid Herod. The revelation in the last chapter of Matthew to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (28: 1-10) is accompanied by a call to avoid fear and announce the news of the Resurrection. In both instances, the encounter with the revelation of Jesus is met with responses of homage by the Magi (2:11) and the two Marys (28:9).
In his classic commentary on the infancy narratives, renowned biblical scholar Raymond Brown notes what he calls the “subsequent Christian midrash” that arose around the Magi, transitioning that continues the process of “coloring-in the outline of the magi with hues familiar from the lives of Christians of later centuries”(199-200.) While aware of their anachronisms and naiveté, Brown still affirms these reflections as a “valid hermeneutic instinct” not necessarily removed from the intent of the author of the gospel (Brown, 200). The hold of the Magi on popular imaginations across cultures and generations yield creative interpretations that communicate complex theological insights through practices, performances, and arts — sometimes even without words. These expressions are imbued with the particularities of interpreters and their respective geographies.
In the companionship of Magi and Marías, the integrity of the whole of Jesus’ life finds expression. The revelation of the divine occurs within the particularity of communities from whom a response is expected. The call to discipleship is not gender exclusive nor is it free from risk. Like the Magi and the two Marías at the tomb, homage acknowledges the presence of the divine in the most vulnerable who find themselves in the most dangerous of contexts.
In these artistic interpretations of the scripture, the identity of the Magi is tied tightly to the particularity of people, inviting communities to consider themselves recipients of revelation, called to do as the Magi did in their encounter with the divine, called to thwart the machinations of empire that imperil the lives of the children in their regions. In detention centers across the USA and on both sides of its southern border, children long for more than a bag of chocolates from los Reyes Magos. This Epiphany they hope for a rescue that can only come from people who, like the Magi, have the wisdom to recognize the revelation of God in those who are powerless. Such divine self-disclosure calls forth the type of reverence that results in the flowering of justice and profound peace.
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry
Director, Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1999).