Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany when we recall the visit of the wise men to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem. These mysterious personages from the East clearly represent the Gentiles, they are both foreigners and followers of a religion other than Judaism.
The word which is translated as ‘wise men’ in our text is transliterated from the Greek as ‘Magi’ which is where we get our word magician from. We might wonder precisely what Matthew meant by his use of this word Magi. It is thought to cover a wide variety of occupations ranging from Zoroastrian priests to astrologers. However, one is drawn to conclude that Matthew thinks that they are astrologers since they come to Bethlehem guided by a star.
We might wonder at his depicting of them as astrologers as there grew up very quickly in the Early Church a strong aversion to magic and astrology. It was quickly understood that with the appearance of Christ all such superstitions are superseded. Also, we note that all the other references to magic in the New Testament are negative. And yet here in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative magic and astrology seem to be treated rather favourably.
In the past it was thought that once they had paid homage at the feet of Jesus the perceived superstition of these Magi was dissolved and that they immediately converted to belief in Christ. The only problem is that there is no actual evidence in Matthew’s account to show that this is what they did. In reality Matthew presents these Magi as being wholly admirable and their following of a star is viewed as quite an appropriate way to find the Messiah.
In truth the whole story of the Magi is interesting. They visit King Herod and we get a glimpse at his Machiavellian plotting as he asks them to return to tell him precisely where the Messiah can be found. We immediately realise that this is a device so that Herod can exterminate any possible rival to his throne. But fortunately the Magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and as a result chose to return home by a different route.
An interesting point in this story given to us by Matthew is that while the Magi are guided by a star this only takes them as far as Jerusalem. They then have to approach the Jewish authorities who in turn consult the scriptures to find the precise location of the birth of Jesus which turns out to be the town of Bethlehem. So while nature leads the Magi to roughly the right place we are being informed that the true secret of the location of the birth of the Messiah is only to be found in the Jewish scriptures. This location is then confirmed by the star reappearing over the place where Jesus is born.
This means that we are presented with the irony that the Jews had all the knowledge they needed in their scriptures to predict the coming of the Messiah even including the exact location of his birth but nevertheless they fail to recognise him when he does come. However, these foreigners following what are purely natural signs are able to see that the birth of the Messiah is imminent and are so drawn to worship him.
That the Magi come looking for a King is also an eerie foreshadowing of the sign written above Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.’ Then too, it was the priests and leaders who conspired to do away with him just as they attempted to do at the time of his birth.
As we noted right at the beginning the main point about the coming of the Three Wise Men is that they are Gentiles and so represent us, the non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Their appearance right at the beginning of the story clearly points to Christ’s intention to bring salvation to the whole human race and not merely to the Jews.
The other characters to whom the birth of Christ is revealed are the shepherds. These shepherds represent the poor and the marginalised and with the Magi standing in for the foreigners we can see the wide scope of Christ’s mission. From the very outset we can observe how God arranges things in such a way as to make it known just how universal is Christ’s mission.
The extremely wide scope of Christ’s purpose has direct implications for each one of us. It means that we ought to resist any temptation to narrow access to the Gospel or to confine membership of the Church to this or that group. The aim of the Church is to embrace every single person on the planet. The Church is meant for absolutely everyone and we should be very careful to ensure that nothing that we say or do can be interpreted as restricting in any way its universal mission.
This reminds us that there is no room for prejudice of any kind within the Church. We need to realise that any distinctions based on class, race, sexual orientation or on anything else have no place in the life of the Christian. We recognise that all people are equal in the eyes of God and his salvation is meant for every single person.
While it is only natural that we have a bond with those from our own country or locality or with those who share certain characteristics or cultural background with us, we need to realise that there can be absolutely no place for prejudice or discrimination in the Church. This is something that we have to constantly check on and be on our guard against.
Of course, adopting an attitude of openness can be very challenging but we need to realise that it is also very liberating. Being completely open means that we do not restrict ourselves to this group or that. It means that we accept everyone in the world and gradually learn to appreciate all their differences.
This turns out to be a cause of rejoicing for us all because it means that the Kingdom of God is open to absolutely everyone. Our entrance into heaven is therefore based only on our behaviour and on our attitude to the Gospel and we cannot be excluded from it on the basis of race, family, circumstances of our birth or any other thing that we have no control over. Today we take up a special collection for the work of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. More commonly known as SPUC, it works at the national level to try and counteract legislation that would adversely affect the unborn and also combats the unremitting amount of propaganda put out by pro-choice organisations.
It is important that the case for protecting the unborn is constantly made in the media in a clear and unambiguous way. Those still in the womb necessarily depend on others to defend their right to be born and this is the work that SPUC does. Our society is becoming more and more selfish and increasingly the rights of the unborn are put in second place and this needs to be constantly questioned.
Also, scientists are continually pushing the boundaries of what is morally acceptable and only a few years ago the regulator gave the green light to three-parent babies, the first of which was born in 2016. Initiatives such as these push us further and further away from the normal pattern of procreation and increasingly make conception something that occurs in the laboratory.
While one might have sympathy for those who might go on to suffer from inherited diseases, promoting the three-parent embryo technique takes us another step in the direction of so-called designer babies and erodes the moral and ethical restraints that have been in place for centuries. SPUC is one of the only organisations speaking against the wholesale destruction of embryos that will result from this initiative. Please support the advocacy work of SPUC by means of the second collection today. Thank you.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket