Analysis of the Gospels: Feast of the Epiphany

detail of a stained glass window depicting the Adoration of the Magi, date and artist unknown; church of Saint-Pierre, Dourdain, France; photographed on 8 December 2013 by GO69; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsSaint Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Q. Who was this Herod under whose government Christ was born?

A. He was the oldest son of Antipater, the Idumian from the city of Ascalon, who was appointed king of the Jews by the Roman Senate at the recommendation of Mark Antony. He was the father of Herod Antipas, who ordered the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and grandfather of Herod Agrippa, who caused Saint James to be put to death and the same who imprisoned Saint Peter. Saint Matthew informs us that Herod ruled in the time of the birth of Christ, fulfilling the prophecy of Jacob, who foretold the coming of Christ when the sceptre had passed into the hands of strangers. This prophecy was verified when the Roman Senate appointed Herod, of Idumian origin, king of the Jews.

Q. Who were these Magi of whom the Evangelist speaks?

A. They were men distinguished for their knowledge, particularly of astronomy, and according to some Fathers and Doctors they were petty kings of the East who came, as was foretold in the seventy-first psalm, from Arabia and from Saba to offer their gifts and adoration to the Messias.

Q. In what way were they invited?

A. They saw the star which according to prophetic prediction was to appear when the promised Saviour was born, and by the interior operation of grace they recognized it as the sign of His birth and hastened to follow its course. According to the opinion of the Fathers, they were the first of the Gentiles who were called to enter into the Church of Christ.

Q. What is worthy of remark in the conduct of the Magi?

A. We must admire their promptness in corresponding to the invitation of grace. Immediately on the appearance of the star they, giving no heed to the suggestions of human prudence, the difficulties of the way, and the uncertainties of success, left their homes and set out in search of the Child; and while thus seeking in obedience to the voice of heaven, they teach us with what disregard of human interests, with what solicitude and courage, we should always follow divine inspiration and the call of heaven.

Q. But why were the Magi directed to Jerusalem?

A. We must here remember that a prophet had called Jerusalem the queen of the world and the joy of all the earth. In Jerusalem alone was the temple dedicated to the true God; to Jerusalem came worshippers from all parts of the world; there were preserved the holy books, and there were found the great teachers of the law. For this reason the Magi directed their steps to the capital of the nation, reasonably hoping to find there a most certain guide who could conduct them to the desired place. We learn from this to have recourse to those who by reason of their sacred character, office, learning, and prudence may direct our steps when we feel impelled by some interior call of heaven.

Q. What are we to think of the question of the Magi when in Jerusalem in reference to the new-born King of the Jews?

A. Their questionings left without excuse the people of Jerusalem who did not recognize and strive to know the Saviour. The coming of the Magi and their seeking for the new-born King of the Jews should have attracted the attention of all in the city, and the answers which the Doctors of the Law, after consulting the books of the prophets, gave to them and to Herod, by whom they were consulted, should have attracted the attention of every citizen to what had happened in full conformity with the expectations of their fathers, with the desires of the people, and with the circumstances in which all the prophecies culminated. It would be unfortunate for us if we, like the non-believers of the time, should attribute to accident or fate that which is God’s work.

Q. What are we to say of the promise of Herod?

A. The cries of the children brutally slaughtered by his command give the answer. His zealous devotion to the new-born King of the Jews was hypocritically assumed in order to deceive the Magi and get the divine Infant into his power that he might put Him to death. His deceit failing of its object, he commanded all the male infants to be put to death that in the general slaughter the infant Jesus might be included. Alas, not all those who make a show of zeal for the truth, justice, and glory of the Eternal Father are lovers of Jesus Christ.

Q. What is to be said of the Magi who, after departing from Jerusalem, again saw the star which had led them from the East?

A. We should comfort ourselves with the reflection that when, like the Magi, we sincerely seek to know the divine will, and seek in the proper manner by consulting learned and enlightened teachers, we will be led to the desired end. God is faithful. Let us submit ourselves to His guidance and He will send us His light to direct us.

Q. How did the Magi recognize the infant Messias Whom they sought?

A. From the words of the Sacred Text it is to be inferred that the star stopped over the place where the Child Jesus reposed, and this wonderful event attracted the attention of the Magi and caused them to enter. It is not difficult to imagine the impression the presence of the God-man made on them and the grace it wrought in them. He Who when grown up knew how to call His apostles after Him, could as a child make Himself known to the Magi, and make them His worshippers.

Q. What did the Magi offer Him, and with what intention?

A. The Gospel tells us they offered Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. By the gold, says Saint Gregory, they recognized Him as king, by the incense they acknowledged Him as God, and by the myrrh they indicated His human nature. They, says Saint Leo, proclaimed by the nature of their gifts the faith that was in their hearts, and with full knowledge they venerated in His person two natures, the divine and human of Jesus Christ.

Q. What are we to learn from this Gospel?

A. We should learn to recognize in the Magi the first-fruits of our vocation to the faith, and to thank God that we have been made Christians. We should learn also to follow the divine call and to offer to Jesus Christ the gold of charity, the incense of prayer, and the myrrh of holy mortification and Christian penance.

– text taken from Analysis of the Gospels of The Sundays of the Year, by Angelo Cagnola and Father L A Lambert, Benziger Brothers, 1892; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, Archdiocese of New York, 1892