The Gospel accounts provide us with four distinctly varied recollections of Jesus’ life and ministry. All of them include many elements of similarity, yet each one has its distinctive aspects. The infancy narratives of Jesus are only included in two of the gospels — Matthew and Luke. And only Matthew records the visit of the Magi, which wraps up the Christmas season traditionally on Jan. 6.
Many years ago I read through Raymond Brown’s large commentary titled The Birth of the Messiah. It focused on the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life. One of the larger premises that Brown puts forward is that the infancy narratives helped to explain the importance of Jesus at the very outset of his life.
Historically, for most people it was only at the resurrection that there was confirmation that Jesus was the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. God’s raising Jesus from the dead was the resounding confirmation that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Up to that point, Jesus experienced significant opposition to his claim of being the Messiah. And even afterwards, the stories of the resurrection were not believed by all.
Yet within the faith community, this newly established understanding of Jesus as Lord enabled them to remember all that he had done and to then see it in a new light. Now they could see that his baptism was a confirmation of his role. That pivotal event was now understood (for those who had ears to hear and eyes to see) as having been confirmed by the Holy Spirit who came upon him at the Jordan River.
Still, even in the end of the first century of the early church there was significant opposition to Jesus’ message and ministry among the Jewish community. The faith community to which Jesus had primarily come with a message of salvation was being more readily embraced by the Gentiles than it was by the Jews!
Now the infancy stories about Jesus took on new importance. Here, in the first events of Jesus’ life, there was confirmation of who he was and what his mission was to be. In Matthew’s telling of that story, it was important that Magi, learned scholars from the East who were Gentiles, were drawn to Palestine by a sign in nature. But since they were not familiar with Jewish scripture, they had to consult with those who were to discover the exact location of the prophecy about a new king. Equipped with this information, they sought out and found this wonderful One from God.
And so the irony of the historical situation unfolds in the Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. Gentiles recognize the significance of it over the Jews who have been waiting for this moment for centuries. Even when the Gentiles have to contact and consult with the Jews to learn more about the meaning and location of this auspicious event, it is the Gentiles who seize the moment, not the Jews. And it is the Jews, colluding with the Roman authorities, who seek to thwart this event and its outcome.
It is always a bit unnerving to read this story and realize that those who had invested the most time in anticipating the coming of Messiah were not the first to learn about it, nor even when they did, were they able to embrace it and rejoice in the event. This narrative ought to be an antidote to our own smugness when it comes to understanding the gospel story. What are we missing today as we seek to follow Jesus? May the story of the Magi humble us, giving us the resolve to live our lives with eyes wide open and hearts ready to see God’s present activity among us so that we, like the Magi, upon seeing may be “overwhelmed with joy.” (Matthew 2:10)