St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages a form of prayer with which we visualize the events of a Gospel scene. Actually, Christian imagination has been doing this with today’s Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, for a long time. By the fourteenth century, in Northern European art, the wise men were often depicted as coming from the three known continents. The youngest, Balthasar was African, who brought the gift of myrrh. Melchior, who brought the gift of frankincense, was middle-aged and European, while Caspar was an elder and an Asian, who brought the gift of gold. All ages and peoples are represented.
Why were these “wise men” making this journey? Their explanation to King Herod was that they were seeking the “newborn king of the Jews.” They had seen “His star in its rising and have come to do Him homage” (Mt 2:2).
They understood this remarkable star as announcing the birth of a new king of the Jews. So they set out! They think they have everything they need but one thing they don’t have is a map or a GPS nor do they know exactly the destination, except that it will be a child. All they have to guide them is a star.
The Collect of the Mass today compares to experience of the star with the wise men and our experience of faith: “O God, who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star, grant in Your mercy, that we who already know You by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of Your sublime glory…”
Their journey is a model for our journeys, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out:
Those Magi are the first-fruits of the nations and 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)” (Commentary on Matthew).
According to Thomas, the importance of faith in following Jesus explains why the wise men did not have “evident signs”:
“This would have lessened the merit of faith, which He came to offer us as a way to righteousness: ‘The justice of God by faith in Jesus Christ’ (Rom 3:22). For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it is the ‘evidence of things that appear not’ (Heb 11:1)” (3a. 36, 1).
Thomas adds: “His first coming was unto the salvation of all, which is by faith that is of things not seen. Therefore it was fitting that His first coming should be hidden” (3a. 36, 1, ad 3).
The journey of the wise men reminds us that faith is the way we go in the Christian life. We may not see where we are going, but, as Thomas has reminded us of Paul’s words: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
Traveling in a foreign country is stressful and inconvenient, particularly finding suitable lodging and food. We might assume that the wise men became discouraged and were tempted to turn back.
Thomas Aquinas notices that, although the star was visible in the day, at an important moment in the trip, it disappeared: “For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this, not even the moon… it was visible at one time and hidden at another” (3a. 36, 7).
At times, in our lives, everything seems to fall into place but there are times when some very important parts of our lives are not clear. With the wise men, we are not sure if we are going in the right direction.
The wise men expected to find the newly-born King in Jerusalem. At their arrival in the holy city, the star disappeared. They, naively, assumed that the ruling king, Herod, would be able to help them.
Herod has his own reasons for being interested in their story. He discerns that this “new born king” will actually be the longed for Messiah (Christ). He consults the priests and the scribes, “where the Christ was to be born.”
The chief priests and scribes conclude that the child will be born in Bethlehem, using a combination of Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2. They speak of Him as a “ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Mt 2:6). John’s Gospel (which does not say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem) gives us an indication of the expectation that the Messiah would be of David’s line and born in Bethlehem, when people in the crowd argue, “Does not scripture say that the Messiah will be of David’s family and come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (Jn 7:42).
Thomas Aquinas reflects that the wise men could only go so far by natural signs: “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).
Yet, challenges to their faith were not over. 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).
The Wise Men rejoiced, “because they now knew great things about God, namely, that God was in the flesh and was most merciful… They were moved with admiration” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas affirms: “They showed the child reverence by adoring and offering and obeying… therefore, they fell down and worshipped him, as God concealed in man” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
In His birth, Christ manifested His humanity. It was for others to recognize His divinity, as Thomas notes:
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).
Thomas maintains that the Holy Spirit moved the wise men 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 turn our journeys into worship of Christ, which is the end of our journeys as well.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P., may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.