Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
— Matthew 2:1-2
The gospel of Matthew was written as a message of encouragement and strength for Jewish communities who accepted Jesus as the messiah, and perhaps to convince those in doubt that there were valid, scriptural reasons to believe likewise. Matthew chapter 2 makes four references to Old Testament prophesy, citing Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Micah.1 Clearly this writer is on a mission to prove the messianic validity of Jesus.
Our common picture of the birth of Jesus takes place in a stable where he is visited by shepherds.2 In Matthew there is no stable and no shepherds, and Jesus is visited by 'wise men of the east' (not three kings as is often assumed). We can imagine the wise men being philosophers, astrologists, divinators, people seeking truth in one way or another. They've heard rumours of the messiah's arrival and journey to see for themselves. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they bring are symbolic of kingship, deity and sacrifice. Gold represented earthly wealth, frankincense, an expensive incense burnt in temple ceremonies where the smoke would drift to the heavens represented the direct connection, or oneness with God, and myrrh, an anointing oil being a predictor of the sacrifice and death to come. Whether these wise men actually existed or visited Jesus, indeed whether the birth of Jesus happened as described in Matthew (or Luke, a somewhat different story) or not is rather beside the point. This is story, and story contains its own internal truth—and with such a story perhaps also eternal truth—expressed through metaphor. Matthew makes known to us through these three gifts what we should expect of Jesus the messiah. The three wise men are in some ways heralds of God among us.
When we are able to let go of the need to take the gospels literally, we are free to discover all kinds of hidden meaning relevant to ourselves and our own communities. It also frees us from the tricky apologetics and mental/literary gymnastics we must do to justify a literal interpretation. The Old Testament is packed with references to God's coming kingdom. Here we have evidence that it is at last coming to pass. I imagine that gave great hope to thousands of oppressed people. We all need hope in times of struggle. Story is often the vehicle to make that happen. Promises have been made. Surely, it is now time for their fulfilment.