They Opened Their Treasures
(A Brief Meditation on the Epiphany ― the Manifestation of Jesus, Messiah, to the World.)
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 2: 1 ― 12
The visit of the Magi is one of the most diversely interpreted passages in the whole Bible. Commentaries often devote several pages to explaining all possibilities which can be deduced from examining the text in minute detail. Readers who require such detail can easily access it in the vast range of commentaries available.
Our aim is to offer a brief overview to assist in our meditations at this special time of the Christian Year.
One commentary opens with this paragraph:
This story has often been dismissed as legendary because of
parallels in other literature and partly because of the unusual
features involved. But it seems that Matthew is treating it as
factual and it would not be surprising that, if Jesus was God
incarnate, His infancy as well as His birth and ministry should
have been attended by remarkable phenomena. (R. Nixon)
Our Reflection will proceed in this traditional Hebrew-Christian understanding of the event as recorded by St. Matthew. In keeping with the nature of our approach to meditation on Sacred Scripture, we will focus on his presentation and not make regular comparisons with the occurrence as recorded by St. Luke.
Due to the particular style of this narrative, we have included more detail than usual in the hope that it will assist our readers in understanding the text. Where appropriate, the source of a comment is indicated by the person’s name, to honour their scholarship.
Our Reflection on the Text
Verses 1 and 2
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.”
Our story opens in Bethlehem, some uncertain time following the birth of Jesus there. From the opening verses we are drawn into a very Hebrew scenario, full of spiritual significance and prophetic purpose. It is almost surreal from the outset.
Our following notations will help “unpack” some of the richness of the text.
Bethlehem of Judea (Sometimes, Bethlehem of Juda.)
Bethlehem (about 5 miles south of Jerusalem) was the birthplace of King David (1 Samuel 16: 1) and the census had taken Joseph and Mary there because of their Davidic descent. (Luke 2: 1 ― 6)
Judea was the name of the Roman Province, but it was probably mentioned as a reminder of the descent of Jesus from the Royal line of Judah. (R. Nixon)
This title distinguishes the city from Bethlehem of the tribe of Zebulon and Galilee.
(See Joshua 19: 15)
There are four Herods mentioned in the New Testament:
a. Herod the Great, spoken of here, who was King of Judea,
Samaria, Galilee and part of Peraea, who died between
B.C.E. 4 and 2, after a reign of 37 years.
b. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who became tetrarch
of Galilee, when his father’s Kingdom was divided into four
provinces: Judea, Galilee, Trachonitis and Abilene.
c. Herod Agrippa (the older), grandson of Herod the Great and
nephew of Herod Antipas.
d. Herod Agrippa (the younger). (Callan. O.P.)
Magi from the East (Latin, magi = wise men from the Greek ‘magoi‘.)
Our printable version of the N.A.B. text provides the following note:
“Magi: originally a description of the Persian priestly
caste, the word became used of those who were
regarded as having more than human knowledge.
Matthew’s magi are astrologers.”
We should also note that they were the learned class in Persia and Chaldea and not, for instance magicians, for which the same word is used in Acts 13: 6. (Kleist S.J.)
There is no reason to suppose that they were thought of as evil men practising black magic. (Nixon)
For that matter, neither were they (three) Kings. (Hartman and Kennedy)
Let’s not be distracted at this stage with some of the fanciful myths attached to these very sincere seekers of the Anointed One.
King of the Jews
It would appear these visiting Magi had concluded from the appearance of a particular star that a “King of the Jews” was recently born.
If the magi understood from the beginning that the newly born King of the Jews was the Messiah, they must have acquired this knowledge from the Jews of the Dispersion (the Diaspora, the scattering among the surrounding nations). (Hartman and Kennedy)
Their whole appearance and conduct certainly reflect a strong belief in their information together with a robust determination.
“We saw His star”
It was common belief at the time that the star signified the presence of a great person. As it denoted someone great in Judea, they naturally went through the official channels, never expecting the obscurity which surrounded the One whom they sought. (R. Nixon)
There is a direct link in this clause with the “pillar of fire“ (Exodus 13: 21) which guided the Israelites through the desert. There will be other similar prophetic links. (Kleist S.J.)
Although the allusion is not explicit, the Jewish reader would recognise the star that rises from Jacob (Numbers 24: 17) ― an allusion to David, usually interpreted in a Messianic sense. (Not all scholars would agree with this lineage, but it is a legitimate comment and certainly an authentic interpretation of how Jews of that time would have understood it.)
We should therefore keep in mind just how much this event is bedded into the core of Hebrew messianic prophecy.
“to do Him homage”
This is that special obeisance shown in the Orient to people of superior rank. It consisted in kneeling and touching the ground with the face and can include kissing the ground or the feet or garments of the person so honoured. When rendered by a believer to God, such homage was an act of adoration. (Kleist S.J.)
Verses 3 ― 6
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’.”
Concerning verse 3
In contrast with the Magi’s desire to worship the ‘King of the Jews’,
Herod is deeply troubled. In this, ‘all Jerusalem’ joins him, not
because most of the people would have been sorry to see Herod
replaced or because they well knew that any question like the
Magi’s would result in more cruelty from the ailing Herod, whose
paranoia had led him to murder his favourite wife and two sons.
Concerning verse 4
Herod recognises that a person of such importance to the Magi is
likely to be the Messiah. (R. Nixon)
Herod calls an assembly of “all the chief priests and the scribes of the people“. There were several recorded reports of an anticipated high level person coming to claim his kingdom.
(These are accessible to us in the Latin historical chronicles of Suetonius and Tacitus.)
The assembly in the above text was not an official gathering of the Sanhedrin. In fact Herod almost certainly, called separate meetings of local chief priests and scribes. These two groups despised each other and thus would need to be consulted separately.
The chief priests were Sadducees. The term refers to the hierarchy made up of the current high priest and any who had formerly occupied the post.
The scribes were Pharisees and teachers of the Law, the Torah. They were experts in both the written Torah, and the oral teaching God gave to Moses, which he passed down orally ― not in writing.
The work of the scribes was not so much in copying out Old Testament manuscripts (as the word ‘scribe’ suggests) as teaching what the Books (the scrolls) contained. Because much civil law was based on the Old Testament and the interpretations upheld by the leaders, the ‘scribes’ were also ‘lawyers’, and thus very influential. (D.Carson and Kleist S.J.)
Our printable NAB text has a note (4) which helps us understand Herod’s paranoia about a usurper in his midst:
Herod’s consultation with the chief priests and scribes has some
similarity to a Jewish legend about the child Moses in which
the “sacred scribes” warn Pharaoh about the imminent birth of
one who will deliver Israel from Egypt and the king makes plans
to destroy him.
Concerning verses 5 and 6
As far as we can tell, the Sadducees (and therefore the chief
priests) had no interest in the question of when the Messiah
would come. The Pharisees (and therefore most of the teachers
of the Law, the rabbis) expected him to come somewhat later.
The Essenes alone, who were not consulted by Herod, expected
the Messiah imminently .…. . But Matthew plainly says that,
though Jesus was the Messiah, born in David’s line, and certain
to be Shepherd and Ruler of Israel, it was the Gentiles who
came to worship Him. (D. Carson)
The quotation (in verses 5 and 6) from Micah 5: 2 # is cited somewhat freely according to the wording of the Prophet, but the Scribes understood it correctly as foretelling that Bethlehem (of Judea) would be the birthplace of the Messiah. (Hartman and Kennedy)
# Micah is actually quoting 2 Samuel 5: 2 where the tribes of Israel came to make
David King over them in Hebron. (R. Nixon)
Verses 7 and 8
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.”
We are not sure where to pinpoint this in the time-line of Salvation History.
It would seem from verse 16 (the slaying of the young boys the same
age as Jesus) that the Magi told Herod that they had first seen the
star two years before their arrival in Jerusalem. God, however,
might have revealed the star to them some time before the birth
of Christ. (Hartman and Kennedy)
The Magi carried out all the correct protocols and were commissioned by Herod to bring him news of the child to whom he wanted so much to pay humble homage!
The old fox, Herod the Great, actually hoodwinked these highly educated and venerable scholars into believing that he sincerely wanted to pay homage to this important personage, whoever he might be. But the Magi were under very special oversight and protection, as we shall see.
Verses 9 ― 11
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,
Concerning verse 9
In verse 9 we are told that the star they had previously seen and identified literally as their ‘cursor’ (running messenger) “preceded them”. Sometimes this is translated as “went before them”. It could mean, linguistically it went ahead of them and anticipated their arrival. However the Biblical interpretation is that the star is a symbol of God’s Presence and guidance as the cloud during the day or the pillar of fire at night in the story of the Exodus.
The setting of the narrative is genuinely Jewish (See Exodus 15: 20).
As the ‘star stood over where the young child was’ a cloud hung
over that part of the mountain where Issac was to be sacrificed:
and Abraham seeing said: ‘This seemeth to be the place‘
(See Genesis 56: 2 and Exodus 35, end). (Levertoff and Goudge)
That the star could point out an individual house shows that it
must have been some luminous object very near the earth and
therefore entirely miraculous. (Hartman and Kennedy)
Concerning verses 10 and 11
Verse 10 can easily be glossed over. But let’s allow St. Matthew’s emphasis to draw us into the event as it unfolds. The learned Magi were “overjoyed” at seeing the star. These complete foreigners are greatly stimulated at the sight of the star which meant so much to them. It is a beautiful forerunner to the prophecy of Zechariah at the birth of his son John the Baptist:
“Thanks be to the merciful heart of God!
A dawning Light from on High will visit us, to shine upon
those who sit in darkness and in the shadowland of death,
and guide our feet into the path of peace.”
(St. Luke, translated by Kleist, S.J.)
To those who are spiritually awake and alert, everything points towards fulfilment in our Lord Jesus Christ who is to be the Light of the World.
Verse 11 tells us, “they saw the child with Mary, His mother”.
The reference to “the child” suggests that this may have been
a considerable number of months after His birth. The Magi
probably told Herod when they first saw the star, and his
killing of the children under two years of age (verse 16)
suggests that there was a fair period of time involved. (R. Nixon)
At seeing the child Jesus, they prostrated themselves and did Him homage.
This verb in itself does not necessarily signify divine adoration;
but it is evident that God must have revealed to the Magi
something of the nature of the Child whom they worshipped or
they would not have acknowledged Him even as King of the Jews
in such lowly surroundings. (Hartman and Kennedy)
The Son of God, having been revealed first to Mary and Joseph,
two humble poor Jews, is now revealed to representatives of the
learned and rich among the Gentiles. (R. Nixon)
We could well take a brief look at Psalm 72: 10 ― 11 and Isaiah 60: 6 and reflect on the ancient prophecies regarding the Gentiles and the coming of the Messiah.
May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings
of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him. (Psalm 72: 10 ― 11)
Caravans of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and
Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense,
and heralding the praises of the LORD. (Isaiah 60: 6)
They opened up their treasures
The word “treasures” probably means “coffers”, or “treasure boxes”
in this context. (Carson)
They offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Why such gifts?
Gold ― so very fitting to represent membership of the
Household of God.
Frankincense ― with sweet smelling fragrance representing the
holiness of God, a presence penetrating every
Myrrh ― symbolising bitterness, suffering and affliction
as the appointed means to purification.
Jesus accepted each of them, and so must we.
The Fathers of the Church have interpreted them mystically to typify Christ’s Kingship, Divinity, and mortal Humanity. (Hartman and Kennedy)
As a comment “on the side”, it was not suggested by the early Father’s of the Church that the Magi intended consciously to affirm their belief in the Kingship, Divinity and Humanity of our Lord. Rather the Church has learnt to discern in the actions of those who earnestly seek God, that they often reflect a strong prophetic significance which gradually comes to fruition in the course of time.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they
departed for their country by another way.
The profoundly spiritual Gentile Magi have carried out their mission faithfully, yet without trumpets and fanfare. In a manner they could understand, God imparted His protective warning to them not to report back to Herod, but instead to return home by a different route from the one they had planned. They obeyed without question. As is so often the case with God’s most faithful servants in the Scriptures, we do not hear of them again. They perform their duty, and happily disappear back into the local society of which they are members.
For prayers inspired by the homage of the Magi see:
“When they had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared, just in time, in a dream to Joseph, saying: “Rise! Take with you the child and his mother and flee into Egypt. Remain there till I give you further notice! Herod is on the point of searching for the child in order to take his life!” (Matthew 2: 13, translated by J. Kleist, S.J.)
The Egyptian frontier was hardly two days journey from
Bethlehem. Egypt had always been the place of refuge for
those who were persecuted in Palestine, and the very heart
of the country could be reached in a week. (Callan, O.P.)
The pace of events recorded by St. Matthew is moving rapidly. Our story of the devotion of the Magi, so unique and stunning in its beauty, is shattered by the sudden news that Herod is about to pounce on the child Jesus to cut Him to pieces. But this is all part of God’s actions to authenticate to His people, the nature of His Son’s divine calling and mission.
Not only does the Messiah repeat in His own life-story the
history of His people in spending His infancy in Egypt (See Hosea 11: 1);
but as the ‘first redeemer’ fled from Egypt, the ‘last redeemer’
fled into Egypt. (Levertoff and Goudge)
This poor child and His parents seem to take it all in their stride. The political super-powers of the day are quite convinced they control all within their reach. God’s “little ones” are far too busy coping with survival in an unnerving set of circumstances. They just quietly do what they are told, and get on with the job. How very reassuring!
The homage of the Magi to the Infant Messiah is less a
fulfilment of prophecy than itself a prophecy. The
Messiah, born to save His people from their sins, is
sought, found and worshipped by Gentiles; while the
highest representatives of His own people are so
indifferent to the quest that they leave it to a tyrant to
discover the true King, and then only with a view to
destroying Him. (Levertoff and Goudge)
Early in this set of Reflections we made the comment that the story which unfolds before our eyes seems almost surreal from the outset. It is an event shrouded in mystery, featuring a miracle of light throughout, and leading to the glorious manifestation of the Messiah.
The story reaches its climax when the Magi paid homage to Jesus in front of Joseph and Mary and then offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For Jesus is the link here, between the Holy Family and the yet to be proclaimed Holy Trinity. The gifts are very special: Gold for the Father, Frankincense for the Holy Spirit and Myrrh for the Son. They are truly prophetic in their significance.
In our story the gifts are rightly given to the Son, for He will be the One who presents all gifts to the Blessed Trinity. It is through Him we will offer everything to the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit; and through Him the Blessed Trinity will dispense all graces and gifts of salvation for all humanity.
The awesome Epiphany or sacred manifestation of the Anointed One (Messiah) to the Magi will remain forever one of the greatest moments in the History of Salvation.
Blessed be Jesus Christ (Messiah): true God and true man. Amen.
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Let us remember God’s Teaching contained in His Word and in
They Opened Their Treasures
Epiphany Year C St. Matthew 2: 1 — 12
1. An honour indeed!
The picture given to us by St. Matthew leaves us pondering and asking a lot of questions. How is it the great scholars of Israel miss the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah — the Desired of the Ages? The Sadducees (and among them, the Chief Priests) couldn’t have cared less about when He would arrive. The devout Pharisees (which included the rabbis) had a genuine concern, but predicted his coming somewhat vaguely later. The devout Jews St. John the Baptist mixed with (and learnt from) were called Essenes. They were monastic followers of God and spent their lives studying the Scriptures, singing the Psalms to the Lord, and living truly disciplined and dedicated lives. They alone “got it right” — they expected the Messiah at any moment! They had a very special role in preparing for the Messiah, and this was actualised through their fellowship with the Baptist. In that way, their devotion was richly rewarded.
However, for God’s own mysterious glory, the ones chosen to encounter the Messiah in person were, first, the Jewish shepherds in and around Bethlehem, and later the Gentile Magi.
The story of the Magi emphasises how easy it can be for the official authorities at all levels to miss the signs — but also to show how God manages to call “outsiders” to make up for the shortsightedness and self-importance of those who should know better. The lesson remains in active progress, and still applies in our own day. We had better take care to keep our focus on the Anointed One, and the message He has for us. We too could miss it, for it is a message inspired afresh by the Holy Spirit for each age.
2. A Light for All!
A particular feature of the Star which guided the Magi was that it acted as a ‘cursor’ — a “running messenger”. It always “preceded them” — it drew them on, closer and closer to the object of their search. There is so often in the Scriptures the sense of urgency in connection with the inspirations of God and the responses He requires. Those who respond with alacrity are blessed. Those who dally and are undecided quickly fall by the wayside, and remain muddled.
The Magi never lost sight of the Star because they kept up with it. Nothing has changed! We think we are following the Daystar from on high? — let us be seen as doing so!
3. No time to wallow in the glory!
The visit of the Magi is a beautiful moment for Joseph and Mary; not to forget young Yeshua lapping it all up as the centre of attention. They settle down for the night and need a good long rest following so much attention and activity. No sooner had they begun to relax when suddenly an angel appears and declares to Joseph:
“Quick, quick, get up — get the family ready and flee
It is not exactly what Joseph wanted to hear just then. After all, the Angel could have said a little earlier: “You need to know Herod is not at all happy. When you’ve had a good rest, and you feel it’s right for you, pack a nice little picnic meal, and head south over the boarder. You and the family will feel safer there.”
But Joseph was instantly obedient. Within the shortest possible time the family were on the road to Egypt — in the middle of the night! Throughout all of this, the poor, tired and perplexed Holy Family just did what they were told by God’s personal Messenger. The powers of this world had to be contended with, but God, watching His own, permitted them to respond as best they could in very alarming circumstances.
Sometimes we look at what is going on around us and we feel tempted to despair. Yes, much is very alarming, but if we follow the messages God conveys via His Divine Word, His ministers of the Word, and His holy Angels into whose care we are assigned, then we will be able to keep going.
God is well aware of what is frightening us — even though He requires us to trust Him totally, and patiently bear with it.
Let us pray for one another — for all who would honour God, however differently from ourselves — that we may all receive His abundant Lovingkindness and Mercy and gladly share these spiritual gifts with everyone we meet or pray for.
Matthew 2: 1 ― 12
Epiphany Year C
1 1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the
2 saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We
3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled,
4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the
5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it
6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means
7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search
9 After their audience with the king they set out. And
10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
11 5 and on entering the house they saw the child with
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to
1 [1-12] The future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles are retrojected into this scene of the narrative.
2  In the days of King Herod: Herod reigned from 37 to 4 B.C. Magi: originally a designation of the Persian priestly caste, the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. Matthew’s magi are astrologers.
3  We saw his star: it was a common ancient belief that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Matthew also draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “A star shall advance from Jacob” (⇒ Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not an astral phenomenon but the king himself.
4  Herod’s consultation with the chief priests and scribes has some similarity to a Jewish legend about the child Moses in which the “sacred scribes” warn Pharaoh about the imminent birth of one who will deliver Israel from Egypt and the king makes plans to destroy him. ⇒ Matthew 2:11: Cf ⇒ Psalm 72:10, ⇒ 15; ⇒ Isaiah 60:6. These Old Testament texts led to the interpretation of the magi as kings.
5  ⇒ Psalm 72:10; ⇒ Psalm 72:15; ⇒ Isaiah 60:6; These Old Testament texts led to the interpretation of the magi as Kings.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
A Loving Heart, An Adoring Spirit, An Obedient Will.
The Manifestation of Christ to the World — Traditional Prayers
From the rising of the sun, even to the going down, My name is great
Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for your light is come, and the
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me does not
O God, who are, from everlasting to everlasting, Creator and Upholder of all things, Source of all life and light; we worship and adore You. Great are You and greatly to be praised; Your greatness is unsearchable. Look mercifully upon us, we implore You and show us Your glory. Let the light of Your love arise and shine upon us, that the darkness of our souls may vanish before the beams of Your brightness; and blessed be your Name, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from this time forth, and for evermore. Amen.
Almighty and most merciful God, who desires not the death of a sinner; mercifully grant to us absolution of our sins and in the days to come give us grace to serve You more faithfully; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
O God who guided the wise men to behold Your Son, our Lord; show us Your heavenly light, and give us grace to follow until we find Him, and, finding Him, rejoice. And grant that, as they presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we now may bring Him the offering of a loving heart, an adoring spirit, and an obedient will, for His honour, and for Your glory, O God, Most High. Amen.
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Highest, who came to give light to all that are in darkness; fill us with Your own infinite love for all humanity; and since You have entrusted to us the knowledge of Your truth and the gifts of Your bounty, help us to use them as good stewards, that we may share in bringing all people to Your light and hastening the coming of Your kingdom; who with the Father, in the unity of the Spirit, lives and reigns, God forever and ever. Amen.