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Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ: Mt 2:1-12

All over the world, Christmas  trees are adorned and placed in people’s homes, shopping malls, and town centres. Also seen on TV are pictures of crowds of people cheering and so full of joy at the colourful lighting of the trees and the Christmas decorations. The word “joy” certainly matches with Christmas.

Even in this Gospel passage text we find certain people, the ‘wise men from the East’, filled with joy. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Mt 2:10). I would like for us to observe three points about these wise men from the East (Magi, or astrological scholars of their time, perhaps from Babylon) that were filled with joy, and I would like for us to think about the joy of Christmas.

Firstly, they were not Jews but were Gentiles. They had come from the east to Jerusalem. They inquired, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” (v. 2). The Bible says that upon hearing this king Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (vv. 3-4.). We see here that both the wise men from the East and Herod were searching to visit “the king of the Jews”, Who is the “Messiah”, which means “the Christ”. The meaning of Messiah is “the anointed one”. The New Testament Greek word equivalent is “Christos” which is a literal translation of the Hebrew word “mashiach”.

Christmas is celebrated today throughout the world. Christmas is a word that comes from “Christ” and “mass” (meaning religious service; mass from the Greek μᾶζα means barley cake, or lump of leavened dough)[1] and it is a holiday festival in which we celebrate that the Messiah or the Christ  has come into the world (God is with us).[2] But, originally it was the Jews, and not the peoples of the entire world, who had been waiting for the coming of the Messiah Christ. The Messiah was being waited for by the Jews, even to this day, as “the king of the Jews”, who would save them.

Even the Bible which announces the coming of the Messiah is originally a Jewish composition. The scripture is not a book that dropped out of the heavens, but is a book with a background in the history of Israel. The word “Messiah” is the same way, too. But, when the Messiah who was expected by the Jews was born, we are told from this New Testament scriptural text that it was not the aforementioned Jews who came looking for this Messiah, but Magi, astrologers[3] who were Gentiles that had come from the orient.

This emphasis is surprising. I say that because pagan astrologers were the target of scorn and avoidance for the Jews, as variations of divination and spells were originally forbidden in the Law of Moses (for instance, Deuteronomy 18:10). From the Jews’ point of view, these astrological scholars were in a category very far from salvation. But, the Bible tells us that even these men, as they were, had come to visit the Christ and were filled with joy. You could also say that they are symbolic of the events later in the life of Christ and later in the history of the church. The people who had come joyfully to Christ were the tax collectors and the sinners, who were considered far from salvation, and the ones who filled the church were the Gentiles (non-Jews) who were thought of as defiled. Those who self-righteously felt they were close to salvation were instead at enmity with Christ and the church.

So, the call of God always reaches far and goes beyond our poor human logic and thinking. Thus, we should never say about ourselves or others that “I’m too unworthy to ever have anything to do with Christ”, or “That person is so far from salvation”. In light of the Gospel according to Matthew, we should keep in mind that it was the Gentile astrologers who took part in the ‘joy of Christmas’.

Secondly, the ones who were filled with joy here were the people who had been seeking for the one worthy of their worship. They said, “…For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (v. 2). The word “to worship” originally meant to lay prostrate before a king and to kiss his feet. These wise men would go on to lay themselves prostrate before Him, after making a long trip and seeking for the one to whom they ought to present their gifts (vv. 8-10), which were fit for a king (v. 11). We must note that the apostles preached Christ to these same Gentiles when He was already a grown man, but a star declared Him to the Gentiles when he was a small child, not yet able to perform the normal human function of speaking. Hence, preachers should make the Lord – when He was already speaking – known to us by speaking, and silent elements should preach Him when He was not yet speaking.

But with all these signs that were manifested either when the Lord was born or when he died and rose from the dead, we must note the great hardness of heart of some of the Jewish people. They did not have the love of God within them, because they were proud people who sought glory from one another and not the glory of God . The Saviour Himself attests to this truth when He censures the Jews who search the Scriptures that bear witness to Him, but yet are incapable of discovering what the Scriptures say about Him (cf. Jn 5:39-44). They failed to recognise Him either by the gift of prophecy or by His miracles; whilst all the elements bore witness that their creator had come. For example, the heavens knew that He was God because they immediately sent forth a star; the sea knew Him because it allowed Him to walk upon it (Mt 14:25); the earth knew Him because it trembled when He died (Mt 27:51); the sun knew him because it hid the rays of its light (Mt 27:45); the stones and walls of houses knew Him because they were broken at the time of his death (Mt 27:51); hell recognised him because it gave up the dead it was holding (Mt 27:52-53); and yet the hearts of the Jews and some others remained full of anger and unbelief, and did not know that He was God, although all the dumb elements perceived Him as Lord. Harder than stones, they were unwilling to be broken for repentance, and they refused to acknowledge Him whom, the elements proclaimed to be God either by their signs or by being broken.

To the increase of their condemnation, they despised when He was born, the One they had long known would be born. And they knew not only that He would be born, but even where He was to be born. For on being asked by Herod, they named the place of His birth as they had learned it from the authority of the scriptures, and they brought forth the testimony that Bethlehem was to be honoured by the birth of their new leader. Thus their very knowledge was for them a witness for their condemnation, and for us a help towards belief (vv. 5-6).

Furthermore, notice how the attitude of the wise men is described in contrast with the way Herod reacted as he heard the news of the birth of the true king of the Jews (v. 2). What does the text say? “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3). When the king of heaven was born, a king on earth was alarmed. Earthly pride is undoubtedly alarmed when heavenly eminence is made manifest. Herod was a political ruler. In a political sense he enjoyed having the earthly kingdom, the world, at his feet.

But, since Herod was not a pure Jew[4], he didn’t have the basic support of the public. Therefore, he always had a feeling of impending crisis, of losing his seat of authority. As a result of that, because of his gnawing suspicions, he executed his own wife and wound up executing his own sons as well. So when the very anxious Herod had heard the rumour of the Messiah’s birth, we can understand how he became restless because it meant the end of the ‘old world’ in which he was passionately in charge. In this way then, the arrival of the Messiah would not bring joy at all to anyone who was trying to preserve his or her ‘old world’ and never intended to bow down and worship the Messiah.

Herod wasn’t the only one who was uneasy. The Bible says, “…he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3). It is believed that what the word ‘Jerusalem’ describes here is more about the Jewish society’s religious system of control/power, rather than a particular place. It is a symbolic representation of the peoples’ priests and the scribes of the law (v. 4). In a religious sense, they have a world that they can control. But with the coming of the Messiah it would mean that something ‘new’ was being started by God at a turning point level, and because of that, it would mean that the old religious world in which they were rulers was also supposed to usher in its end. Their worrying was of the same type as Herod’s. The arrival of the Messiah would not bring joy at all to those who were trying to preserve their ‘old world’ and who never intended to bow down before the Messiah. And, here’s where the dilemma, which humans experience, can be found. What it means to seek for salvation is no different from seeking for a new miracle from God, except that, people don’t want to let go of their ‘old worlds’ or their ‘old way’s (or as the fathers say, ‘the old man’/’the old adam’). Therefore, when people try to preserve their ‘old man’, the ‘new Man’, the Messiah/the Christ only becomes an ingredient for worry, as a threat to ones ‘old world’.

In the text, it states that there are some wise men, Magi, or astrologers that had come to Jerusalem from the East, after Jesus was born (v. 1). In the world of the orient where the movement of the stars was believed to have control over human destiny, the astrologers possessed a high social standing for their insights, and therefore they had some power to rule. We see their importance also in that even outside their country they were not persons of low position because when they had entered Jerusalem they immediately had an audience with the king Herod. But, they had a more important purpose than preserving their old world. Their goal was to find the Messiah. It was to discover the One in whose presence they should lay themselves prostrate, as He was worthy of it. This truly was the matter of highest importance in their lives.

Thirdly, they set out from their native land in search of the truth. In the ancient world of astrology they had their own kind of what we would call academic discipline.  No doubt, they had researched about the messianic star as covered in all the different kinds of documents of theirs on the coming Messiah arriving as the king of the Jews. But, they didn’t stop there. They rose up and set out on a journey to discover the Messiah and to worship Him. As far as researching goes, we can do it with books before us. But, when it comes to worship, we must move our bodies to a place.

In the scriptures, there are many stories of people who have set deliberately out on a journey. Even Abraham’s story goes like that. We’ve heard that also with the Israelites when led by Moses. We’ve heard that with Jesus’ parable on “The Prodigal Son”. The prodigal son wasn’t just suffering in his miserable everyday living; “And he arose and came to his father” (Luke 15:20), says the scripture. In other words, faith is not obtained merely by thinking about it but by practicing it. Words and wondering do not teach us God, but the wisdom from experience does. For example, as long as we never open the window, fresh air will never come into the room. As long as we never bathe in the sun, our skin will never bronze. Obtaining faith is also the same way. As the church fathers said, we cannot reach the goal by just waiting and sitting at ease.

In this text for instance, when king Herod asked the question of where the Messiah was to be born to the priests and scribes, they were able to immediately give an answer, they said to him “In Bethlehem of Judea” (v. 5), and they were able to enumerate the words from Micah of the Old Testament as the basis for their answer. When we look at a map, Bethlehem is not that far apart from Jerusalem in modern terms. At the most, its distance is around ten kilometres. They knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The astrologers had journeyed a long way to get there. It is beyond our imagination how hard it was to make a journey across the desert two thousand years ago. It must have been a very long trip at that, without the transport conveniences that we enjoy today. Nevertheless, the astrological scholars knew that they had to head for that direction from this point on. But, the scribes of the law weren’t about to travel on this journey along with the astrologers. As a result, they wouldn’t have a part in their joy either.

After that comes the story of Herod deciding to murder all of the boys under two years of age, including his own sons. Why under two years of age? In verse seven it has, “Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared”, and he made a decision based on that time period. It was two years ago when the star had come out. He pretended that he wished to worship Him, to destroy Him if he could find Him. But of what avail is human malice against the divine plan? “There is no wisdom or understanding or council against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). In this instance Herod symbolises the hypocrites, who when they falsely seek after the Lord never deserve to find Him.

The star which had appeared to them guided the astrologers/Magi on. During these two years they had been keeping up their search. They spent the greatest part of it on the long journey. They wouldn’t give up. They kept on searching. Then, at last, they had found the one worthy of their worship. They had great joy in that.

The gifts they brought were “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11). These gifts represent two things. Firstly, some biblical scholars say that these were the tools of the astrologer’s trade. That would make sense that they were truly offering to the Messiah the world of astrology, the old world that they had. Their discovery of the Messiah became a cause of great joy for them. After taking part in this joy, they no longer inquired after the stars again, but went back home in obedience to the word of God. Hence, they went home through another road, “being divinely warned” (v. 12) according to the will of God.

The magi indicate something important to us by their returning to their own country by another way. By doing what they were advised to do they suggest to us what we should do. Paradise is our country. Indeed we left our country by being proud, by being disobedient, by pursuing merely visible things, by tasting forbidden food; we must return to it by weeping, by being obedient, by rejecting visible things and by curbing our bodily appetites. And so we return to our country by another way: pleasure led us away from the joys of paradise, sorrows summon us to return.

The second meaning of the gifts is this: Gold befits a king; incense is offered in sacrifice to God; the bodies of the dead are embalmed with myrrh. Therefore, the Magi, with their mystical gifts, also preach Him whom they worshipped, a king with gold, God with the incense, a human being with the myrrh. There is something more that can be realised by the gold, incense and myrrh. Solomon testifies that gold symbolises wisdom when he said, “A pleasing treasure lies in the mouth of the wise man” (Prov. 21:20). Accordingly, let us too offer gold to the new-born king if we shine in His sight with the brightness of the wisdom from on high. That we may say that He rules everywhere.

The psalmist bears witness that incense offered to God expresses the power of prayer when he said: “Let my prayer ascend as incense in your sight” (Ps 141 (140:2)). Hence, we offer Him incense if we enkindle on the altar of our hearts the thoughts of our human minds by our holy pursuit of prayer, so as to give forth a sweet smell to God by our heavenly desire; that we may believe that He who appeared in time existed as God before time.

The myrrh indicates the mortification of our bodies or senses, thus the holy Church says of its workmen who strive even unto death on behalf of God, “My hands dripped with myrrh” (Song. 5:5). Therefore, we offer myrrh if we mortify the vices/ passionate attachments, of our bodies by our self-denial out of love for God.  Myrrh for royalty is a sign that their dead bodies do not decompose. For a dead body to decompose is the same as for this human body of ours to become a slave to the decay and stench of dissoluteness. Therefore, we are offering myrrh to God when we use the spice of restraint/self-mastery, to keep this earthy body of ours from decomposing through self-indulgence. So, let us offer myrrh that we may believe that He, who in His divinity is unable to suffer, was a human being with a body like ours, but remained the only sinless one (Rom. 3:23).

Therefore, since we have defiled our lives even after baptism, let us baptise our conscience with our tears (from distress over our ignorance of God’s love and plan for us), according to the psalmist who said: “An afflicted spirit is a sacrifice to God” (Ps. 51:17 (50:19)). Since we are seeking our country again by another way, let us who departed from it in frivolity (silly trivial behaviour) return to it in bitter anger at our sins which kept us away from knowing God’s purpose for us. Let us do this with the help of our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

I pray that this Christmas will be a time for many to set out deliberately on a journey towards great joy as they seek for the Messiah. Also, I pray that it will be a time for many to walk anew by going on a new and different road in accordance with God’s leadership in their life.

[1] “Mass” is one of the names by which the sacrament of the Eucharist is called in the Roman Catholic Church: others are “Eucharist”, the “Lord’s Supper”, the “Breaking of Bread”, the “Eucharistic assembly (synaxis)”, the “memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection”, the “Holy Sacrifice”, or in the Eastern Orthodox Church “the Holy and Divine Liturgy” and “Holy Communion”. The term “Mass” is one of the most common in connection with Catholic Latin liturgical rites.

[2] The name “Immanuel” in Hebrew means “God is with us,” and the prophecy finds its fulfilment in the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:23).

[3] Astrology and astronomy were archaically one and the same discipline (Latin: astrologia), and were only gradually recognized as separate in Western 17th century philosophy (the “Age of Reason”).

[4] Herod was born around 74 BCE in the south of Judea known as Idumea/Edom.

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