Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- The problem with nativity scenes is that we look at them rather sentimentally and as ‘flat’ things, not allowing ourselves to explore the biblical texts and see where the original writer was trying to take his readers and hearers. There is a great deal however going on underneath the Christmas card image of the visit of the magi and we need to explore it if we are to get any appreciation of Matthew’s Gospel. (Matt 2:1-12).
There is the picture of Herod the Great for instance, that appalling monarch, a pagan foreigner, given the throne of Judea by Mark Antony after the country had been occupied by the Romans in 70 BC. This man had ‘converted’ to Judaism, but his tenure of the faith was little more than a sham as he also helped build the colossal collection of pagan temples we know as Baalbek in the Lebanon. He was noted for his brutality, executing over 3,000 Pharisees who challenged his behaviour and arranging the murder of his wife Mariamne and her son, the last of the legitimate Hasmonean royal family. When he finally died in 4 BC his kingdom was divided between his remaining sons and Archaelaeus inherited Judea. His rule was so severe that the Jews appealed to Rome and he was deposed about 6AD, after which it was ruled directly by Rome. A study then in the abuse of power and all that it brings.
By way of contrast we have the wise men, or magi, astrologers from the east. Now, far from being the vaguely humorous thing we find in papers today and read for a giggle, Romans took them very seriously. In 139 BC they were banned from Rome and again in 33 BC from Italy and Rome. Tiberius would ban them in 16AD after a failed insurrection. Astrologers were dangerous men; they could predict the downfall of emperors and the rise of new ones. Herod would have been all too aware of the seriousness of the visit of magi to his lands and the potential threat they posed to his throne. Add this to the predictions in Malachi, of which he would have been aware, of a new David coming from Bethlehem, (which we read on the 4th Sunday of Advent,) here repeated in our gospel and in our reading from Isaiah (60:1-6), of the promised redemption of Israel, and you can see that Herod might well have had cause for real concern. Matthew is therefore going to great pains to explore the difference between Herod’s rule and that of the eternal king. Herod, clinging onto local power; Jesus, who promised a meeting with deity to all the nations, points to the vast difference between fallen humanity and God incarnate and the very different ways they work.
In our reading from Isaiah we see that everything is orientated to Jerusalem and its power and domination. In Matthew, something of a quite different order is envisaged. Matthew’s nativity stories all linger on the significance of the Jewish origins of Christianity, with his references to Moses, David and Jerusalem and speak of a redeemed world, one where true homage is paid to God himself, born in time, one whose rule does not need to be backed by violence and repression and whose dominion is world wide.
Then, of course there are those gifts. I think we should not see them so much as material items, indeed, if we do we, then need to explain the apparent meagreness of Jesus’ life as a carpenter in Nazareth when according to our crib scenes he should have been set up for life! More likely then, we should view them as symbolic: the wealth of one in whose hands the entire universe lies; the one to whom frankincense is offered, that is, to God and finally myrrh, symbolic of his burial, his human death for our salvation. The gifts, on this scenario, serve to proclaim who Jesus is, not to indicate his wealth. In these three gifts Matthew gives us an entire theology of Jesus: it is John’s Prologue compressed into three words.
Nor should we forget the dream which warned the magi to return home by a different route, avoiding any further meeting with Herod. In the ancient world dreams were powerful ways in which mere humans met God. God himself, or the gods, were believed so dangerous that direct contact would destroy the person; but in dreams the devout could see and meet divinity and respond accordingly. It can be no accident that Joseph, in Luke’s nativity account, dreamed four times and responded appropriately on each of them, understanding where Mary’s pregnancy was from and escaping and returning to Israel from the threat of Herod. Here, in Matthew’s Gospel, our wise men – magi – close observers of the heavens and obedient to the will of God also dream. This then speaks of a world of dreamers, those alert to the divine word and open to its message and willing to respond, it speaks of their willingness and devotion to the truth, it is a message to us all.
In his letter to the Ephesians, (3:2-3.5-6) Paul explores what the gift of Christ to the world means: “This mystery…. means that pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus”. This in short is the essence of Matthew’s story of the magi, and far from being about the glamour of the exotic; it makes clear that it is meant for us too, for you and for me.