Moses Renewed; Rome rejected
“Where is he, born King of the Jews?” As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their instructive volume The First Christmas (SPCK, 2008; those who have read it will recognise my indebtedness to them in what follows), the most telling thing about the question put by the Magi on their arrival in Jerusalem is that it is quite unnecessary. As we read, they had been guided by a star that was bright, mobile and accurate: a sort of celestial sat-nav that brings them all the way to Bethlehem, stopping exactly over the house where the infant Christ is now living. And so to ask King Herod, “Where is he, born King of the Jews?” is not so much a request for information, but rather a device by which the author can move the story onward and communicate the points uppermost in his mind.
Principal among these is his desire to establish a parallel or pairing between Moses and Jesus; Matthew wants to present Jesus as God’s Agent, the Saviour and Liberator of humankind; in short, a Moses renewed. In order to do this, it is convenient to cast Herod in the role of Pharaoh renewed, slaughtering an updated batch of innocent baby boys in the forlorn hope that he will thereby prevent the survival of a predestined hero and preserve his own power unchallenged. (If, incidentally, you are thinking that Exodus does not indicate that Pharaoh knew in advance either the impending birth of Moses or his future significance, you would be right. But this is how later Jewish preaching and teaching, the so-called targums and midrash, had come to interpret that story, wishing to avoid the alternative in which either Moses’ parents decide to marry and reproduce despite a potential death sentence hanging over their offspring; or in which the birth of Moses just happens to coincide with Pharaoh’s decision to decimate the Hebrew boys: a case of bad judgement or even worse luck.)
Whether King Herod did in fact slaughter the Holy Innocents is unclear. He was certainly single-minded and ruthless enough to do so, having murdered two of his own sons when he suspected them of plotting to kill him. But Josephus makes no mention of the event and, as Fr Green CR remarks in his Commentary, he habitually “lost no opportunity of recording the crimes of the Herods.” Besides, the main dramatic purpose of the slaughter (apart from introducing the quotation from Jeremiah) is to move the Holy Family to Egypt, triggering the quotation from Hosea 11. This is another of 5 prophecy-fulfilment quotations which, together with 5 dreams, suggest Matthew’s intention of presenting the first two chapters of his gospel as the overture to a gospel proper in which the division of his material into 5 main sections or ‘books’ (on Law, Mission, Parable, Community and the Eschaton) suggests that he conceives of his gospel as a new Pentateuch for his new Moses. It does not matter that the escape of Moses was out of Egypt and that the escape of Christ was ostensibly into Egypt: insofar as Egypt always symbolises death, Christ will not be truly and finally delivered from it until the resurrection, when, in the Father’s mighty raising of the Son, the dark landscape of hell will be searched for lost souls who are brought by the hand of this new Saviour into the Promised Land of God’s eternal banquet.
Matthew draws our attention now to these final events of Christ’s earthly life by giving to the Magi the phrase “King of the Jews”. It is clear that the initial effect of this formula is to act as a powerful stimulant on Herod, who had been granted that title by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate in 40BC; he had had to fight to rid his land of enemies before he could assume his kingship three years later; and he had had to exercise constant vigilance against attack and remain alert and prudent in his ongoing relationship with Rome (especially with Octavian after his champion’s demise following the Battle of Actium in 31BC). To have these exotic Gentile visitors arrive and blithely refer to the existence of a new pretender to his hard-won throne was understandably galling. But Matthew is also using the phrase “King of the Jews” in order to direct our attention to the three other uses of the phrase in his gospel. These are all in chapter 27: Pontius Pilate asks Jesus at the beginning of his trial whether he is the King of the Jews; the soldiers who beat and humiliate Jesus perform mock obeisance, intoning “Hail! King of the Jews!” And when the inscription is placed upon the cross for passers-by to read, it simply states: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Matthew is therefore clear that when we hear the Magi asking their unnecessary question about the whereabouts of the “King of the Jews”, we should know precisely who it is that they refer to, and whose salvific life is now beginning in Bethlehem. Indeed, this is the only occasion in any of the four Gospels when the phrase “King of the Jews” is used other than during the Passion story. The Magi are as clear as we about the Messiah who has come, and what manner of life he shall live. As we saw in the lections for Christmas morning, the peace that Christ brings is peace through justice, with swords beaten into ploughshares and incorporation of the Gentiles into God’s peace through Feast rather than Armageddon). This is very different from the Roman model of a peace that always requires subjugation through crushing military victory. As we consider which of the two Kings of the Jews is sought by the questing Magi, we clarify also what sort of kingship is his, and how his rule is profoundly different from and an unequivocal challenge to the rule of Rome. From the day of his birth, therefore, there is intrinsic antagonism between the nonviolent way of Christ and the violent ways of the Empire. We who are baptised must know under whose banner we stand and in whose way we walk.
“We have seen his star in the East.” On one level, the shining of a star is a perfectly straightforward sign of the birth of a man whose life turns out to be extraordinary, indicating a uniqueness or a particular greatness. Literature records the shining of stars on the birth of a host of such individuals, including Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great and the Emperor Nero. But there is more to stars than this advertising of auspicious births. We see in Hebrew and classical literature reference to stars which denote both the raising up of the Messiah and the establishment of the power of Rome. In his final Oracle in Numbers 24, Balaam speaks of a star that shall “come out of Jacob, crushing the forehead of Moab and breaking down all the sons of Sheth (Numbers 24.17). And in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, father Anchisees prays omnipotent Jupiter for a sign that even amidst these smoking ruins the sons of Troy should be favoured: whereupon,
Out of the sky
Through depths of night a star fell trailing flame
And glided on turning the night to day.
Aeneas and his family followed westward; and where the star stood still, there Rome was founded.
But the star that the Magi are following is more than a global positioning device. It shines not with its own bright aura, but with the borrowed light of the one whose birth it signifies. Just as in the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 6) Kings shall be drawn to the light of the glory of God seen in the restored Temple following the trauma of Exile and return, so these Gentile mystics are conscious of the glory of God made visible in the Christ who tabernacles now among the children of earth.
“And have come to worship him.” The worship consequently offered by these eastern potentates, though similar to the deep obeisance offered to the mighty by those who honour them with homage, “shades off into the adoration due to a divine figure” (Fr Green CR), due in no small part to the offering of the gift of incense. This, as every nativity play reminds us, shows that the baby is Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the same way, the gift of gold alludes to the Kingship of Christ; while the gift of myrrh denotes either the healing offered by Christ or the fact that he will die to save the world from sin. Such a traditional reading depends on our understanding of the Magi as a priestly class of Persian astrologers and diviners, attuned to the invisible mysteries of life, and consequently accorded great honour in society. And this reading will serve us very well, as it has for many a long century. But there is a further reading that may help us today as we also come to Bethlehem to worship the one who has come among us. For “some time before Matthew wrote, ‘magi’ had acquired the more general and pejorative connotation of magicians or sorcerers” (HB Green: New Clarendon Commentary, 1975), and in the offering of the gifts we might usefully see “the stock in trade of ‘magi’ — incense and myrrh being used to accompany their incantations, and gold standing for the money they made by them — all of which are now surrendered and laid at the feet of the child-king.” These wise men have already been given a novel twist: in making them recipients (with Joseph) of divine communication through dreams, Matthew has placed them, though Gentiles, firmly on the side of God’s people Israel, and although Herod looks to them to fulfil the classic role of royal advisers and assist in interpreting the news of this threatening new king, they are presented to us as those who know firmly which side they are on. And in the opening of their treasures, we see that from which we can most urgently learn in our own life of worship and service: the offering to Christ for his exclusive use whatever it is that we value most and hold dearest in our lives. This will include those things that are generally regarded as treasure: among them, money, time, relationships, and the service of our intellect, will and attention. But our treasure will also be those things which are known to us alone and to which we hold on more tightly than is good for us, certainly too tightly for those whose hands are to be held open in generosity and raised high in prayer. This treasure also must be opened and offered to Christ our King for his transformative blessing.
It is in this act of offering to Christ all that we have and all that we are that we will fulfil the last great command and commission of Matthew’s Gospel. If we are to be those who draw outsiders into the discipleship of Christ as unerringly as the star that drew the Magi, then first we must be drawn afresh to him, learning afresh to know him and to love him, to seek and to find him in all his guises, homes and hiding places. Like the Magi of TS Eliot’s poem, we will risk no longer being ‘at ease in the old dispensation’ of our sinful and half-hearted service. But we need not fear: the one whom the Magi worship as God-with-us has himself promised to be with us to the ending of the age. From those who turn to him, he does not turn away. So come: we have seen his star and are here to worship him, opening to him the treasury of our whole lives. Let us do so now in gladness, for his gift to us is abundant and eternal life, and in his service there is perfect freedom. To him be the glory for ever.