The good news of the birth of Jesus and the salvation he brings is intended not only for the people of Israel, but for all people everywhere. And, the appearance of the star to the Magi is one of the first Gospel indicators of the universality of salvation.
Matthew began with the end in mind. If the Gospel ends with Jesus saying, “Go . . . make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), then the Gospel ought to begin with an announcement of the birth of Jesus to all nations.
The Magi lived in the East, most likely Persia. They were highly educated upper class nobility, “wise men,” who were well-informed in astronomy, “astrologers.” They were political or government dignitaries because they served as advisers to the king and princes, and they were spiritual guides because they acted as pagan priests who were both fortune tellers and magicians. The Magi were not Jewish; they did not belong to the people of Israel.
In Matthew’s infancy narrative, the Magi serve as representative figures for Gentiles — all those in the world who are not Jewish. The appearance of the star and the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Magi indicate that Jesus, the Good News of the Gospel, the arrival of the reign of God, and the salvation that Jesus brings are intended not only for the Chosen People, Israel, but for all people, those of every nation, race, language and culture, every person in every land in every age of history.
Route to God
For Jews, one of the privileged pathways to God is through Scripture, but the Gentiles did not have or know the Word. So God used another method, a star.
The beauty of creation is readily observable to anyone, so whether a person sees a star, the sun or the moon, billowing clouds or the blue sky, mountains or rivers, animals or plants, in wonderment and awe creation leads everyone, believer and non-believer alike, to God.
Once captivated by the star, the Magi followed it to Israel, as the Chosen People still serve an important role in leading people to God, and it was necessary for the Magi to consult the prophecies to find Jesus because Scripture eventually becomes valuable to all who seek God.
Initially Jesus came only for the Jews (Matthew 15:24). His initial instruction to his disciples was, “Do not go into pagan territory” (Matthew 10:5), but rather, “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6).
Except when Jesus went to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, all established Jewish communities, many refused to follow him, and in a short while the Pharisees began to plot how they might put Jesus to death. Jesus expanded the scope of his mission to include the Gentiles when he went to the east side of the Sea of Galilee and to Tyre and Sidon. Ultimately, Jesus came for all, Jew and Gentile alike.
The Collect Prayer for the Epiphany begins, “O God . . . who revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star.” Jesus came for all nations, and the appearance of the star to the Magi hundreds of miles from Israel says that salvation is intended for everyone, near and far.
Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka.
THREE ROYAL GIFTS OF THE MAGI
The Magi gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) — extraordinarily expensive gifts, treasures, items that reveal the Christ child’s true identity.
- Gold is a precious metal. When Jesus was born, roughly 95 percent of the ancient Mediterranean world lived at the subsistence level; the people were truly poor and could barely eke out a living. Only a rare, select few — kings and queens, nobles and princes — ever received valuable gifts, and gold ranked as the best gift of all.
Gold is highly symbolic. It says that the recipient is of the greatest stature, of the highest nobility, greater than anyone else. When Jesus was given gold, it said symbolically that he was a king (Isaiah 9:6), the “King of kings” (Revelation 17:14; 19:16), the one who would reign from David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:12-14,16; Daniel 2:44; 7:14; Luke 1:32-33), the King of the Jews (John 19:19), the one to whom all power was given both on earth and in heaven (Matthew 28:18). Gold says that the child Jesus is the King!
- Frankincense was used by priests when they offered worship and sacrifice to God in the Temple (Leviticus 2:2). When it was burned, it created a sweet-smelling fragrance that was pleasing to God. And, as the smoke curled upward, the peoples’ prayers were carried to God (Psalm 141:2). When the infant Jesus was given frankincense, it indicated symbolically that the newborn child would be a priest. In fact, frankincense reveals that the child Jesus is the eternal High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15; 5:5; 7:22-28; 8:1-6; 9:11-28).
- Myrrh is the most unfamiliar of the three gifts. Before the days of embalming, myrrh was a costly perfumed oil applied to the skin of a person who had passed away (see Matthew 26:7,12; Mark 14:3, 8; John 12:3, 7). Nicodemus used a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body after he died (John 19:39-40).
When the Magi presented the child Jesus with an urn of myrrh, it said that he was born to die, to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), to spare people from condemnation and death, and to open the gates of heaven. Myrrh anticipates that the child Jesus would die, be anointed with fragrant oil and reign as the savior of the world.
The three gifts of the Magi reveal who Jesus is: the King; the eternal High Priest; and Savior.