December 20, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt

John F. Fink(Fourth of four columns)

In the infancy narratives, Luke’s Gospel says that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. He obviously didn’t know about the events that are in Chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel—the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of the infants, and the Holy Family’s return from Egypt.

Who were the Magi from the East? They certainly were Gentiles, and they must have been astronomers to recognize a new star. They are assumed to be members of the Persian priestly caste, and they were highly motivated men to travel a great distance to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews.

Christian lore made them kings, as they’re depicted in crèches. Since there were three gifts, it was assumed that there were three kings. Then tradition conceived them as kings from the three continents known at the time: Africa, Asia and Europe. One king became black. They were given names: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. But none of that is in Matthew’s Gospel.

Was there really a new star? Astronomers have debated that for centuries, pointing particularly to the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7-6 B.C., which is probably when Jesus was born. But that doesn’t explain the movement of the star and its stopping over the place where Jesus was. There are some things we simply can’t explain.

The Magi stopped in Jerusalem, the logical thing to do since it was the capital of Judea. That’s how King Herod learned about their mission. The Jewish high priests and scribes were able to tell him where the Messiah was to be born—in Bethlehem.

So the Magi continued their journey and entered the “house” (they were no longer living in a cave) where they saw Jesus and his mother. People have asked, “Where was Joseph?” I’ve always thought that he was out working somewhere; he had to support his family.

After the Magi returned to their homes without returning to Jerusalem, an angel warned Joseph that Herod was going to search for Jesus to kill him. So Joseph took Jesus and Mary and fled to Egypt. Matthew tells us that this happened “that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Mt 2:15). The reference is to the prophet Hosea (Hos 11:1).

For Matthew, it’s important for Christ to relive the Jewish Exodus experience. Just as Jacob took his family to Egypt and Moses took their descendants back to the Holy Land, so the Holy Family fled to Egypt and then returned.

When Herod learned that the Magi deceived him, he ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem 2 years old and younger—the feast we observe on Dec. 28. It’s true that there is no record of this massacre from non-biblical sources, but it’s true to Herod’s character. He had already killed three of his own sons and one of his wives.

Then Matthew has the Holy Family moving to Nazareth. †

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