Texte correspondant en français : Les mages
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
MATTHEW CHAPTER 2 (1)
January 6th, the King’s day, is a well known tradition in France. A King’s Cake is shared in the family where a big bean is hidden within the cake. Whoever finds it becomes the queen or the king for the day. The bean symbolizes Jesus the Child whom the Magi were looking for as they followed the shining star in the sky. The children like this tradition for they desire to become the queen or king of the evening.
The colonists of New France in the 17th century continued this French practice. They made two King’s cake having one bean in each one of them: a cake for the girls and a cake for the boys. This occasion was even used to build up relationship between two young adults whom they thought could make a good couple to be wed. The neighbours were so distant that they used all occasions they had to make young one to meet. For a marriage, the opportunity does not wait, shall we say.
The origin of this celebration goes back to the Saturnalia (2) at the time of the Roman Empire. To thwart the days of misfortunes, a slave was elected as a king for a day. During that day, he could do whatever he wanted before returning to his primary condition. The Church fought against this practice before it was replaced during the Middle Age with that tradition of the King’s cake or galette. Did you know that in Spain, the gifts are distributed to the children on January 6th, which is called Día de Reyes (King’s day) or Epifanía del Señor (The Epiphany of the Lord). Therefore, the children are getting three weeks vacation from the week of Christmas to Epiphany.
We are used to talk when celebrating the Epiphany, about the King-Magi coming to offer gifts to the Infant Jesus. However, nowhere in the Gospel of Matthew does it says they were Kings. The biblical passage mentions only Magi. So the question is asked, who were they?
The gospel according to Matthew, which is the only text relating that event, does not say much about the origin of these persons, nor about their number, neither about their identity. The fact that three gifts were offered (gold, myrrh and frankincense) makes us think they were three persons, but nothing is certain. The value of these gifts makes us also think there were men of great standard, like kings. And furthermore, the Bible does not say much of their origin. The only reference is that they came from the East.
In the greek culture, the magi designated a member of the Persian priesthood, or a magician where the English word comes from, or an enchanter, or prophet, or a soothsayer.
In the second century before Christ, some seventy Egyptian Scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. This was a request from Ptolemee II. This translation, that we call today The Septuagint, translates the Hebrew word for soothsayer or magician by the Greek word magi in the second chapter of the book of Daniel. (3) According to that particular book, the magi had special gift, they were able to interpret the dreams.
In his treaty entitled Every good men is free, Philo considered the Magi to be good men among the Persians. They, he writes, investigate the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted to the truth. At their leisure, they do become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations. (paragraph 74 of his treaty on Every good men is free) It was a way to advance in the knowledge of the time.
The Gospel of Matthew considered the Magi as astrologers. They could read a message at looking at the star. The message was quite clear for they were able to notice that a baby, King of the Jews, was born. The Book of Acts of the Apostle also notes the story of Simon the Magi (or magician) who had supernatural powers. His sudden conversion testify of his interest in possessing the powers of the Holy Spirit (read Acts 8:9, 13, 18-24). The Apostle Peter rebuked him for that reason.
The early Christians from the third century, did not consider the magi as kings, as we can see from this sculpture on a sarcophagus
Bas-relief of a sarcophagus of the 3rd century of Magi bringing their presents to the Child Jesus. Rome, Italy
What can we understand from that text in the Gospel according to Matthew? What to conclude from the simplicity of that gesture of the Magi?
Their power to interprete the signs allowed them to know that something important was happening; the coming of a new born Jewish King. It was not enough for them to know but also that it was worth to come from as far as they were living to bring the precious gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. We do not know the quantity they brought, it could have been a lot or small amount. However, the quantity does not matter for these gifts had symbolic value.
Gold. We know that gold is the privilege of the powerful kings. If we consider the second Book of the Chronical chapter 9 (4) or the first Book of the Kings chapter 10, (5) we can read that the power of King Solomon could be measured to his wealth.
Myrrh and frankincense were delicate parfumes and aromas. It was, and is still today, used in temples. They were of equal and even superior value to the gold. These fragrances were also used in the Temple of Jerusalem. The mixtures were so precious that it was strictly forbidden for personal use. (6)
The beauty of this episode relates how the world received the revelation of a new born King. How the Lord is touching the heart of the people through His Creation. It is amazing to read the response of these Magi who gave everything they could. They were touched they were moved in responding to that particular birth. They recognized in Jesus, a Sovereign Lord over themselves worthy of receiving their gold. They offered Him delicate aromas, as if they were celebrating that particular life that was born. They became living sacrifices through their offer, and through faith they understood the message of the living God. God let Himself be approached by those men.
Matthew, the Evangelist, tells us that when the Magi arrived to Jerusalem King Heorod was troubled. And not only him but also Jerusalem. The word in Greek is a little stronger for it relates a physical emotion as well. the King and Jerusalem were shaken by the news, agitated. What news could troubled them so much? Were they blind that they did not care for the prophecy of the Old Testament? This is where it hurt them: the news of a new born Jewish king is brought by strangers. It is brought to their attention by magi, these magi that the Lord asked His people to turn away. The news is terrifying for the Jewish, for they were awaken to a specific prophecy of the Old Testament. The priesthood, guardians of the Scrolls of the Word of God, (7) should have been announcing the accomplishement of God’s promises: the coming of the Messiah. This intrusion of the magi in interpreting the signs convenient to the realization of the Divine plan, does not only put forward the fear of King Herod of the coming of a challenging king, but also that the priesthood failed to correctly identify the time that has come.
Those who were declared impure were announcing the Good News found in the Book of Micah. (8)
This passage is teaching us, Christians, the attitude we should have in today’s world so we may not loose our mandate. As Karl Barth was saying, a minister must wake up in the morning with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In fact, every Christians should do the same. The analysis of the news is linked to the Bible teaching. We are, too often, reactionnary to what happened in the world as if we were outside of it. We brandish the sword of the Word of God and forget the task we have to fulfill. Through the magi, God was able to trouble His people, for in withdrawing ourself from the world or becoming too critical to it, we forget to carry the Gospel of God’s Love into the world: Love your neighbor as yourself. (9)