The “Second Week”: Week Twelve/Session Three.
Theme: The Birth of Jesus.
Our reading for today: Matthew 2: 1-12.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled His birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship Him.”
Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped Him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. (Matthew 2: 1-2, 9-11 MsgB)
It’s intriguing to me that our four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the Bible are fairly limited in their telling of what we call, the Christmas Story. Luke, who gives us the most descriptive narrative, offers us only two chapters. Matthew writes about a chapter and a half, and Mark and John mention absolutely nothing about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth at all! Scholar N.T. Wright states that the primary reason for this lack of information is because of the New Testament church’s focus on the resurrection story of Jesus. According to Wright, it was the belief in the death, the rising, and the ascension of Christ that truly defined the core of the Christian faith for the earliest disciples. And in truth, if I could only tell one story about Jesus of Nazareth, I would certainly choose Easter over Christmas, wouldn’t you?
So the story of the Magi, or as it has become known in church tradition as the story of the Three Wise Men, while intriguing to many, is actually found in only one gospel (our text today) and is given by Matthew only twelve verses. And it’s out of these few sentences; our modern version of the Christmas story now includes ‘we three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traversed so far.’ Today, all of our Nativity scenes depict these three kings, following the revelatory star, and joining with the shepherds, and assorted farm animals, on that cold winter’s night on December 25th, O A.D., just outside the city limits of Bethlehem.
Sadly, the church, over the last two millennia, has added so many twists and turns to the original gospel text, it’s really hard to re-discover the true story of a group of highly-esteemed men who traveled from the east to give homage to whom they believed to be ‘the king of the Jews’. So, if we can, let’s drop all the traditional Christmas stories for a minute and simply contemplate (as St. Ignatius suggests) on the actual text Matthew gave us.
First of all, the Greek word that Matthew uses here in his story was first translated into Latin as ‘magi’ (plural) or in English, ‘wise men.’ There is no reference to how many ‘wise men’ came to visit Jesus, nor are we given their names, or is there an exact time frame given by Matthew that tells us when this ‘band of scholars from the east’ (as Eugene Peterson writes it) actually arrived in Jerusalem.
We do know that Jerusalem was a major stop on what historians call the Silk Road or the Silk Route. This was a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time. Extending 4,000 miles, the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Some scholars believe the wise men came from as far away as China, while others believe they ventured into Jerusalem from closer points east such as Babylonia, Persia, or Yemen. (much thanks to Wikipedia for this info!)
As I see it, the part of Matthew’s story that impresses me the most, is the fact that God, the Father, who, as we have been talking about in our recent blog entries, is revealing His redemption plan for the entire human race, not just the Jews, here in the very earliest parts of the Jesus-story. In Luke’s gospel, the angel that appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem states it clearly…
“I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master.”
And apparently, from what we read in Matthew’s gospel, God wasted no time in letting others know this! If the historians are right, there was a group of highly-esteemed scholars, living in what could have been, a country located far to the east of Jerusalem; somewhere on the Silk Road. These guys were paying attention to life. They were looking and listening for some good news, in what most likely was a lot like our day, a place full of bad news. But then God spoke. A star appeared and they were off…to see the wizard.
Whoops. I just fell into the traditional story-line again. Sorry!
My prayer: Thank You, Father, for Matthew’s recorded story of the Magi. It speaks volumes to me to know that You were expanding the good news of Jesus across territorial boundaries, long before anyone in the Holy Land seemed to even know what was happening! You, Jesus, are indeed worthy of my adoration and like the wise scholars; I bow in reverence at Your feet. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: The story of Magi shows me how the church, with good intentions, can add layer upon layer of tradition over the original story. So how might I have taken the original texts given us in the New Testament and twisted it and turned it in such ways that the original meaning has nearly been lost?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together The Ignatian Adventure?
Over an eight month period, you and I will be working our way through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. For more information on our journey and how to begin…click here!
To go onto the next journal entry…click here.
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