Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
I was an English major at Saint Louis University and have never lost my love of words, poetry, imagery and literature. I took those gifts from Missouri to Maryland where I studied theology at the Washington Theological Union, but I was more interested in Scripture.
But, even before arriving for undergrad study in 1967, I was disabused of the historical interpretation of Matthew 2 in the novitiate, by Father Damien Zimmerman. A biblical scholar with a deep sense of humor and intense love of God’s Word, he opened this mysterious text for us with Isaiah, chapter 60, from which today’s first reading is taken.
Saint Matthew clearly had this chapter in mind with his harrowing, enchanting, mysterious story of “magi from the east.” It formed the background for the midrash, and its interpretative key. The Church has also read backward from Matthew 2 to Isaiah 60 with her traditional stories. Matthew said nothing about kings or dromedaries (camels) but they invariably appear in our Christmas crèches. Where do they come from? Not from the “east” but Isaiah 60:
Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning and Caravans of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and Ephah…
So what does Matthew intend with this story? We begin with, the star which is visible to the whole world but not to Jerusalem. The magi follow the star to Judah and Jerusalem, but they do not see it over the city. It reappears again when they leave the city. From there they follow it to Bethlehem and Joseph’s house. This is a great sadness, a terrible condemnation of King Herod’s treacherous city.
Isaiah had prophesied, "Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come!” but they do not see it when Jesus is born. “Darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the peoples but…” there is no light in Jerusalem. The glory of the Lord shines in Bethlehem and upon the woman and her baby. She is, in effect, the New Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem, like King Saul, has forfeited God's pleasure.
Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
Matthew says they were magi, rather than kings; and references another biblical passage from the Book of Numbers (22). Balaam (a magus, the singular form of magi) saw a star rising.
I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel…
Jewish scholars read this as a prediction about King David, born a few centuries after Balaam. Christians don’t disagree but we see beyond Jesse’s son to Joseph’s son, Jesus. He is the star, seen by the magi, rising from Israel to shine over the whole world.
Finally, we should notice in Isaiah 60 the promise of prosperity:
The vessels of the coastlands are gathering, with the ships of Tarshish in the lead, To bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them
Your gates shall stand open constantly; day and night they shall not be closed So that they may bring you the wealth of nations, with their kings in the vanguard.
Critics sometimes wonder what was the Virgin Mother supposed to do with gold, frankincense and myrrh. They’re bogged down in a literal/historical/factual reading that misses the point entirely. They might as well ask how does Santa get all those toys in his sleigh.
Matthew’s magi offer to the Child the wealth of the nations with gold, the homage of the nations with frankincense, and the violent hate of all the world’s power with myrrh. But the gift of the magi obviously do not represent the worldly wealth of Jesus. He and his parents were poor refugees, driven into exile in Egypt. Matthew’s infancy narrative story is a supremely joyful story shrouded in gloom. He finds wealth in poverty; security in exile; and salvation in the death of innocents.
The threat of Herod remains over Christmas to this day; the Lord’s poor are still driven from their homes by greed, exploitation and war. And Jesus, their pearl of great price, still travels with them into exile.