Every believer follows the star, the light that God gives, in the darkness. St. Thomas Aquinas asks why Christ’s birth wasn’t announced more widely so that more people would have believed in Him. Thomas explains that faith is the way by which we go to God: “Christ came to offer faith to people as the way to righteousness” (3a. 36, 1).
Even Christ’s birth required faith: “… For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made known to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it faith is the evidence of things that appear not (Heb 11:1)” (3a. 36, 1).
Christ’s coming strengthens faith but it doesn’t remove the need for faith: “His first coming was for the salvation of all, which is by faith that is of things unseen. Therefore it was fitting that His first coming should be hidden” (3. 36, 1).
Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in his scholarly study of the Infancy accounts, has described the infancy narratives as “the essential Gospel story in miniature” Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah (updated edition) 1993), 7. The infancy narratives are like an overture in a symphony, which touches upon themes that will be developed later. The infancy narratives make clear that God is present to His people in the person of His Son. Even so, this presence can only be recognized by the discerning eye of faith, as Thomas says: “Christ’s birth was ordered to our salvation, which is by faith” (3a. 36, 4).
Unlike the Gospel of Luke, Matthew doesn’t give us details about the birth of Jesus. Rather, the account moves quickly from Joseph accepting Mary as his wife to the brief statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod to the coming of the wise men to see the “newborn king of the Jews.”
Why do Gentiles move to the center so rapidly when, in the course of His ministry, Matthew will indicate that Jesus told His disciples to go first to the Jews and not to the Gentiles (Mt 10:5)? In fact, however, Matthew was well aware that many Gentiles would come to Jesus. Thomas reflects: “That manifestation of Christ’s birth was a kind of foretaste of the full manifestation which was to come” (3a. 36, 3 ad 1).
Thomas explains: “The wise men are the first-fruits of the Gentiles that believed in Christ; because their faith was a portent of the devotion and faith of the nations” (3a. 36, 8).
The people of the nations would imitate the journey of the wise men to Christ. The wise men model our movement towards God, not only as they are from the “nations” but even as we move through a certain darkness, led by a certain light. The wise men traveled by faith and they responded by faith when they found the Child.
We are on a journey as well. In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Thomas points out: “It should be noted that those wise men … prefigure in themselves our condition. For they presuppose something, namely, the birth of Christ, and they look for something, namely, the place. We, indeed, have Christ by faith, but we look for something by hope: for we shall see him face to face: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5:7).” We are also on a journey.
As we journey, we are also being led. Jesus says, “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to Me” (Jn 6:45). The Father draws us to the Son, just as the wise men were guided by a star. The Father’s teaching isn’t given all at once. Thomas explains: “A person acquires a share in this learning not all at once but little by little” (2a2ae. 2, 3). Our journey is gradual just as the wise men traveled step by step.
Just as a star gave light to the wise men, Thomas tells us that God gives us faith as our light: “…by the light of faith, which God bestows on him, a man assents to matters of faith” (2a2ae. 2, 3).
There is an old say, “Do what you know and you will find out what you don’t know.” Relatively speaking, the understanding of the wise men was small but they followed what they knew and God led them on. Thomas notices that the star was not always visible: ”It was visible at one time and hidden at another. When they entered Jerusalem, it hid itself: then, when they left Herod, it showed itself” (3a. 36, 7). In the same way, sometimes we see where we are going on our journey more clearly than at other times. It is the way of faith.
The wise men are helped in their journey by the Scriptures as Thomas observes: “For the Lord’s will is to make himself manifest to them not only by the star but also by the Law, so that knowledge of the Law might be joined to their knowledge of creatures” (Commentary on Matthew).
In fact, as Thomas indicates the way of believers is not by signs but by the Scriptures: “We are instructed that we, who are believers, should not seek signs, as those did who, seeing the star, rejoiced exceedingly; but we ought to be content with the doctrines of the prophets, because signs are given for unbelievers” (Commentary on Matthew).
According to Thomas, the wise men proclaimed the birth of the King: “It was also God’s will that, when they no longer saw the star, the wise men, by human instinct, went to Jerusalem, to seek in the royal city the new-born King, in order that Christ’s birth might be publicly proclaimed first in Jerusalem” (3a. 36, 8 ad 3). Thomas affirms that the wise men represented the future martyrs from the nations, in that they risked death in inquiring from Herod the whereabouts of another king (3a. 36, 8 ad 1). Thomas’ argument why some people had to bear witness to the birth is indicative of the importance of preaching or other forms of witness. If the wise men had not borne witness, the birth would be unknown “so that no one can hear it from another; for ‘faith comes from hearing’ (Rom 10:17).” (3a. 36, 2 ad 1).
Thomas affirms that the wise men professed their faith when they saw the Child. There were many reasons why they could have doubted that this Child was the one whom they were seeking:
As to externals, he did not speak, he seems helpless, and so on. If one asks about the mother, the answer is that she looked like the wife of a worker. I say this, because, if they had been looking for an earthly king, they would have been shocked at what they saw. But seeing lowly things and considering the loftiest, they were moved to admiration and adored him (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas maintains that the Holy Spirit moved them to adore the Child: “The wise men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did wisely in paying homage to Christ” (3a. 36, 8 ad 1). We also can ask the Spirit to help us pay homage to Christ.
Thomas holds that, in His birth, Christ manifested His humanity. It was for others to recognize His divinity:
Christ’s birth was made known in such a way that proof of His Godhead should not prejudice faith in His human nature. Christ presented a likeness to human weakness and yet by means of God’s creatures, He showed the power of the Godhead in Himself (3a. 36, 4).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The translations from the Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by Fabian Larcher, O.P. The full text is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/
The references to the Summa Theologiae specify the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case it is the third part of the Summa (called in Latin, the Tertia Pars), the thirty-sixth question and the first article within that question. When Thomas addresses one of the objections he has raised at the beginning of the article, it will be indicated by the Latin preposition “ad” (meaning “to”).