Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3A, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
From the earliest days of the Church, the magi have aroused keen interest among the faithful. They were one of the favorite themes of the early Christian artists. Many pleasant and touching legends were born around the mysterious magi, but must be kept accurately distinct from the Gospel story as not to compromise the message that the sacred text wants to communicate.
Matthew introduces the magi as a symbol of all the pagans that, before the Jews themselves, opened their eyes to the light of Christ. Stars were widely believed to appear at the birth of a great person: big for the wealthy, tiny for the poor, blurry for the weak. The appearance of a comet was thought to be a sign of the advent of a new emperor. Many astronomers devoted time and energy to check if two thousand years ago, there appeared in the heavens a very bright star in concurrency with the birth of Jesus. They are admirable for their efforts. However, reading the text of Matthew, astronomers should easily realize that the evangelist does not allude to an astronomical phenomenon. The wise men saw the star that precedes them while they are going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, then a star… from north to south. Really strange! All the celestial bodies move from east to west.
The star referred to by Matthew is not to be found in heaven but in the Bible, in the book of Numbers. In Numbers 22–24, we find Balaam, a magus of the East, just like the ones mentioned in the Gospel today. Matthew highlights another particular: the magi (the symbol of the pagan peoples) would never have come to Christ if the Jews, with their Scripture, had not shown them the way. Israel was the mediator of salvation for all peoples. The popular piety applied to each of these gifts a symbolic meaning: gold indicates the recognition of Jesus as king, incense represents the adoration in front of his divinity, myrrh recalls his humanity—this fragrant resin will be remembered during the passion (Mk 15:23; Jn 19:39).
Even the story of the mounts was not invented for nothing. It is still the first reading today that speaks to us of “a troop of camels and dromedaries” that come from the East (Is 60:6). Unlike the shepherds who contemplated and rejoiced in front of the salvation that the Lord had revealed to them, the magi prostrated themselves in worship (v. 11). Their gesture recalls the court’s ceremony—the prostration and kissing of the feet of the king—or kissing the ground before the image of the deity. The pagans have therefore recognized as their king and their God, the child of Bethlehem and offered him their gifts.
They have become the symbol of people around the world who are led by the light of Christ. They are the image of the church, made up of people of every race, tribe, language and nation. Entering the church does not mean giving up one’s identity. It does not mean submitting to an unjust and false uniformity. Every person and every people maintains his cultural characteristics. With these, they enrich the universal church. Nobody is so rich as not to need anything and not so poor as not having anything to offer.