Precusors on the Trails of Truth
The story of the Magi as told by Benedict XVI
Pope Francis said at the Angelus on the Epiphany that the Solemnity "is tied to the biblical narrative of the coming of the Magi from the East to Bethlehem in order to pay homage to the King of the Jews: an episode on which Pope Benedict gave a magnificent commentary in his book on the infancy of Jesus". The following are excerpts from Benedict XVI's book, published in 2012.
If these wise men, led by the star to search for the king of the Jews, represent the movement of the Gentiles toward Christ, this implies that the cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state. The language of the creation provides a great many pointers. It gives man an intuition of the Creator. Moreover, it arouses the expectation, indeed the hope, that this God will one day reveal himself. And at the same time it elicits an awareness that man can and should approach him. But the knowledge that emerges from creation, and acquires concrete form in the religions, can also become disoriented, so that it no longer prompts man to transcend himself, but induces him to lock himself into systems with which he believes he can, in some way, oppose the hidden powers of the world.
The star had evidently receded from view in Jerusalem. After their encounter with the words of Scripture, it shone for the wise men once more. Creation, interpreted by the Scriptures, speaks to humanity again. In describing the wise men's reaction, Matthew reaches for superlatives: "When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (2:10). It is the joy of one whose heart has received a ray of God's light and who can now see that his hope has been realized the joy of one who has found what he sought, and has himself been found.
"Going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him" (Mt 2:11). Strikingly absent from this sentence is any mention of St Joseph, even though Matthew's infancy narrative was written from Joseph's perspective. We meet only "Mary, his mother" by the side of Jesus at the scene of adoration. I have yet to find a completely convincing explanation. There are one or two passages in the Old Testament where particular significance is attached to the figure of the queen mother (e.g. Jer 13:18). But this is probably not enough. No doubt Gnilka is correct when he suggests that this is Matthew's way of reminding us of the virgin birth and marking Jesus out as the Son of God (cf. Das Matthäusevangelium, p. 40).
The wise men do a proskynesis before the royal child, that is to say they throw themselves onto the around before him. This is the homage that is offered to a divine king. The gifts brought by the wise men may be explained in similar terms. They are not practical gifts, of a kind that the holy family might have had a use for at this moment. They express the same thing as the proskynesis: they acknowldge the royal dignity of him to whom they are offered. God and incense are also mention in Is 60:6 as gifts of homage that the Gentiles will place before the God of Israel.
In the Church's tradition — with certain variations — teh three gifts have been thought to represent three aspects of the mystery of Christ: the gold point to Jesus' kingship, the incense to his divine sonship, the myrrh to the mystery of his Passion.
The myrrh actually appears in St John's Gospel after the death of Jesus: John tells us that Nicodemus had prepared myrrh, among other ointments, for the anointing of Jesus' body (cf. Jn 19:39). through the myrrh, then, the mystery of the Cross is once again associated with Jesus' kingship and mysteriously proclaimed in the worship offered by the wise men. Anointing is an attempt to resist death, which only becomes definitive with decomposition. By the time the women came to the tomb to anoint the body on Easter morning — a task that could not be carried out on the evening of the crucifixion because of the approaching feastday — Jesus had already risen. He no longer needed myrrh as a protection against death, because God's life itself had overcome death.
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10 January 2014, page 16
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