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Christmas and the Visit of Magi

by Dn. Philip Mathew

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Matthew 2:9-15

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

Matthew 2:19-23

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Today's Gospel reading (Mt. 2:9-15, 19-23) continues the familiar story we began to hear on Christmas day. Having followed the star to Judea, and having conferred with King Herod about where the King of the Jews was to be born, the Magi (wise men) arrive in Bethlehem, and offer their gifts to the Child Jesus. They are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and so they go back to their home. Joseph is warned by the angel to take the Child and His Mother to Egypt to protect them from Herod's rage, and after the wicked king's death, they return to Nazareth. For most people, today's Gospel is just part of the larger Christmas story familiar to at least a third of Earth's population. It explains, for example, the presence of wise men in Nativity scenes, the star on top of Christmas trees, the practice of giving Christmas gifts, and highlights some of the supernatural events surrounding the birth of Christ. Most of us stop there. On Christmas, we celebrated not just the end of our twenty- five day Fast, but the birth of the Son of God in our world. God slept in a cave. Angels sang God's praises in fields where sheep were grazing. On Christmas, heaven bowed down to earth, and earth became heaven. Our celebration of Christmas is likewise glorious: families gather together and are reunited from near and far, gifts are exchanged, delicious foods are enjoyed, carols are sung--for one day, the whole world seems to be celebrating with us as one family, and it is hard for us not to be on some sort of "cloud nine".

Today's Gospel brings us back down to earth, back to reality. The wise men escape Herod because they learn of his intent to murder the newborn Child. Joseph is warned in a dream to escape with Jesus and Mary into Egypt for safety. And in the passage that comes in between the two halves of this Gospel, we hear (on 27 December) of Herod's slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem. And just like that, the joy of Christmas seems to have disappeared and things have gone back to the way they used to be: darkness and fear, bloodshed and death. Herod seems to have won, but let him and let all like him be warned: "Gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces, gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak the word, but it will not stand, for God is with us" (Is. 8.9b-10). God is with us! Even as a newborn refugee in Egypt, God is with us! Light and life have been restored to the world, for God is with us! And the kingdom Herod vainly attempts to keep is the kingdom of Immanuel (cf. Is. 8:8).

In Christ, we see not only that God is with us, but that He has always been with us. God has "summed up" or "recapitulated" all things in Christ: Christ "gathers up" into His life all the experience of creation. St. Irenaeus of Lyons explains this "recapitulation": "Therefore Christ passed through every age, and among infants was an infant, sanctifying infants; among children was a child, sanctifying those who have this age and likewise becoming for them a model of piety and justice and submission; and among young men a young man, becoming a model to young men and sanctifying them for the Lord. Thus also he was an elder among elders, in order to be a perfect master in all, not only in His interpretation of the truth but also in his age, at the same time sanctifying the elders and becoming a model for them. Finally he came even to death, that he might be 'Firstborn from the dead, holding the primacy in all things' (Col 1:18)."

But not only did Jesus sum up all human experience in Himself, but He also summed up in Himself the salvation history of Israel. The readings of the day give us a clue to look out for this by beginning with a selection from the book of Genesis with which the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, is told. The favourite son of his father, his older brothers burn with rage towards him because in his dreams he saw his brothers bowing to him. At first they conspire among themselves to kill him, but in the end they opt to sell him to Midianite traders, who take Joseph into Egypt, where he is enslaved. When we remember the Old Testament Joseph, we remember how he climbed to the second position in all Egypt, and provided for the people during famine, and during that famine, his brothers indeed bowed to him (Gn. 42:6), a fulfillment of the dream he saw. Joseph's brothers return to their father with the good news that Joseph is not only not dead as he thought, but that he is Pharaoh's second in command. Jacob and his family move with their belongings to Goshen (Gn. 46:1-7), and so Israel goes down to Egypt. But the book of Exodus immediately tells us that another Pharaoh who didn't know anything about Joseph enslaved the people of Israel. God heard the cry of His people, and called Moses and sent him to Pharaoh with a message: "Thus says the LORD: 'Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me'" (Ex. 4:22-23). After many trials, God brings His firstborn son out of Egypt, and settles him in the land promised to his fathers.

St. Matthew introduces his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:1-17). The evangelist introduces us to "Joseph, the son of Jacob" (cf. Mt. 1:16), the husband of Mary. This Joseph also sees visions in his dreams, both before and after the birth of Mary's firstborn Son (cf. Mt. 1:25), the firstborn Son of God (cf. Mt. 1:20); Joseph's dreams are fulfilled. This Joseph also goes into Egypt, escaping death (Mt. 2:14). A wicked king (Herod) keeps him in that exile, until God takes the life of the king, and delivers Joseph and his family out of Egypt and settles them his own land (Mt. 2:21), the land of his fathers. This fulfills the prophecy of Hosea (Hos. 11:1) that the firstborn Son would be called out of Egypt (Mt. 2:15).

In a similar way, Christ's life, as recounted in the Gospels, "sums up" the entire history of Israel, culminating in His own Passover from death to life. If all of those Old Testament events are "present" in His life, and all of our human experiences are in a very real way "present" in His life, then God is a part of our life and experience and common history; God is with us! And our lives, and our experiences, and our history are "present" to Him; in a very real way, "we are with God"! Our world today seems enslaved to darkness, evil, and death in many and diverse ways, and it seems often like God takes no notice. But in these days especially, we are reminded of the rock-solid foundation of our hope: God is with us, and "did not cease to do all things until he endowed us with His Kingdom" (St. John Chrysostom), until He brought us to where He is. And if our presence with God in His Kingdom is our reality--even here and now on earth because of His coming among us in the flesh--then what kind of life must we lead while on earth? And have we lived that life up to now?

This is a great time for just this kind of "soul-searching"; in doing so, maybe we will be able to make meaningful changes, meaningful resolutions, with the help of God.

See Also:

Christmas and the Visit of Magi
The birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem was an epoch making chapter in the history of mankind. It happened to be the appearance of spiritual truth which shed light to the whole world. Jesus Christ came to this world as an embodiment of divine light that enlightens all those who fumble in darkness of evil. He came as the love that eradicates hatred and the energy that enables people to live a better life.

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