The Gospel of St. Mark begins with Jesus being baptized by St. John the Baptist as a grown man who will soon begin his own ministry. St. John begins with Jesus as God’s divine word through whom he creates the universe. It is this word who becomes man and lives among us having the “glory of the Father’s only Son.” Again there is no description of Jesus’ birth or youth. Only St. Matthew and St. Luke begin their Gospels with infancy narratives. Their narratives, however, focus on different characters beyond Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. In St. Luke’s Gospel, it is shepherds, sent by angels, who find the Holy Family in a stable. Jesus has just been born and laid in a manger. This is the infancy story that we celebrate at Christmas. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the visitors who come looking for the baby Jesus are Magi, astrologers from the East, possibly Iran or Iraq on today’s maps. St. Matthew doesn’t say exactly where they find the Holy Family, but he uses their story to make several important points about Jesus’ true identity and his mission as our Lord and savior. It is this Epiphany or manifestation of the baby Jesus that we celebrate this coming weekend. 

St. Matthew begins his Gospel with the story of the Magi to give us a preview of God’s plan for our salvation through sending his son to save the lives of all humanity. The Holy Family with their baby are the fulfillment of promises made throughout the Old Testament from Genesis through the prophets, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Zechariah. For instance, Isaiah prophesies “Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the gentiles … he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory: and in his name will the gentiles hope” (12: 18-21, RSV). The Magi in St. Matthew’s infancy account represent the gentiles. At the end of his Gospel, St. Matthew records the risen Christ’s final commission to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” 

These themes of Christ being God’s final gift of salvation for all humankind, not just the Jews, and his continuing presence with us through his Spirit until the end of time are constant throughout St. Matthew’s Gospel. At the beginning of the infancy account, when the angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream to assure him that Mary is pregnant through an act of God’s Spirit, he says, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Then St. Matthew adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’ ” (Mt I: 21-23, Is 7:14). 

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The Magi story is what Scripture scholars call a midrash, a story often referring back to prophesies and helping to illustrate future biblical events. For instance, Psalm 72 speaks of a king’s son who will “defend the afflicted among the people, save the children of the poor … The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts … all nations shall serve him … May he be given the gold of Arabia … In him all the tribes of the earth be blessed.” Do you recognize this in St Matthew’s infancy story? 

So, are the Magi just a story, or could they be an actual event that happened.? Writing in 1968, a well-known biblical scholar, Jean Danielou, argued that the Magi were an amplification of what was known to be historical fact. The amplification would be the importance given to St. Joseph’s dreams and the story of the star. However, he thought that the story of Herod was true. The historians of the time painted him as unusually cruel and totally paranoid. He had his wife and three sons executed. And all that Herod did in the Gospel story took place in the last year of his life. His mental condition could have been deteriorating rapidly. Therefore Danielou concludes, “That Joseph fled from Bethlehem to escape Herod’s massacre is part of the original historical truth.” That he went to Egypt with his family is not so certain. St. Matthew could have been thinking of Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.” St. Matthew’s Gospel is aimed at the conversion of Jewish readers. They would have made the association. They were used to midrashic interpretations of Scripture. St. Matthew wanted his readers to see Jesus as the true Israel, the bearer of universal salvation. 

Our more modern Scripture scholars have tended to be more skeptical than Danielou. The most highly regarded of them, an American, Raymond Brown, did not accept the historical existence of the Magi. He noted in his famous 1977 work, “The Birth of the Messiah,” there is no indication of some kind of family tradition that came from Joseph and/or Mary. He points out that the two evangelists, St. Matthew and St. Luke, contradict each other in crucial points. At the annunciation scene, the angel in St. Matthew’s Gospel, speaks only to St. Joseph; in St. Luke he speaks only to Mary. The visitors in St. Matthew are Magi, while in St. Luke they are shepherds. Brown concluded that St. Matthew and St. Luke used different traditions but for the same purpose: “to make Jesus’ origins intelligible against the background of the fulfillment of OT expectations” (p. 37). They were trying to supply a transition from the Old Testament to the Gospel. 

Historical or not in their origins, the Gospel Nativity stories have, through the centuries, moved the hearts, prayers and imaginations of Christian faithful. While they are unnamed in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi have acquired names: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Although the Gospel does not tell us their mode of transportation, we have supplied them with ships of the desert camels. And on my mantelpiece above my fireplace I have a small chest brought by friends from Yemen containing gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

May the gift of Christmas and its savior child be with you throughout the New Year. 

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.