The Visit of the Wise Men

About a year after Jesus was born, the holy family was still in Bethlehem, but had found better quarters. Possibly they were renting a house, maybe they were staying with relatives. In any event, the manger was but a memory when the family was visited by strangers “from the East,” usually thought to be Persia.

We don’t know how many of them there were, much less their names, but we do know that Matthew refers to them as “wise men.” There are several different understandings of the term that designates them–magi may refer to astrologers, Zoroastrian priests, experts in various occult arts, and so on. What we know for sure is this: they connected their observations of a star with the coming of the King of the Jews, and came west to Israel to “worship him.”

That word “worship” is in some ways the key to this passage. It’s used twice, once when they tell King Herod why they had come, and when they came to the house and met Him live and in person. Herod responded in bloodthirsty fashion to the wise men referring to Him as a king, and assumed Jesus’s birth was all about politics. But the wise men weren’t interested in paying obeisance to a new-born politician. They wanted to meet One who was worthy of worship.

The really interesting thing about the worship they offered to Jesus is there is no response from Mary. She was a Jew, not a Gentile magi (who, if not Zoroastrians, might well have been polytheists), and we might expect her to object. God alone is to be worshiped, she might have said, and as important as my son is, he is not God. It would not have been a doctrinal problem for the early church for Matthew to have noted such a response, since it would be assumed that she simply didn’t yet understand who Jesus really was–certainly there are many indications that His disciples didn’t really get Him until after the resurrection. But Mary apparently makes no move to stop the wise men from offering to her son–God’s Son–the adoration that He deserved.

The modern tendency, particularly among those seeking to reconcile themselves to modernity, has been to downplay if not repudiate the incarnation. Jesus becomes a wise man Himself, an especially insightful rabbi, a wandering mystic, a political liberationist, and so on. But the wise men, and Mary, stand as witnesses to the truth that the Child of Bethlehem, while fully human, was not merely an ordinary, or even extraordinary, human being, but rather God in the flesh, forever worthy of our worship.