When [the wise men] had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-12 NRSV)
I knew that Mark had given no details about the birth. He was in a hurry to set down in writing the bare bones of the story so he skipped over that. But I had to put before the people some of the details. It was important, after all, to put down in writing some of the details of his conception and birth if only to lay to rest the rumors and the sensational stories that were flying around at the time.
I had to set down the genealogy of the one whom we called Son of God. And not only did I have to set this down, but I had to show the important role that Joseph had played in this miracle. This done, I had to account for his survival by fleeing from Herod’s wrath. More important, I had to explain to the Jewish people why everything that happened had been in accordance with the Law and the Prophets, even seemingly trivial details like his coming back out of Egypt. It had all been foretold, and I could, and did, cite chapter and verse to prove this.
For further example, the story of the Wise Men arriving at the stable needed to be told. Their mysterious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh had a context. Gold for the King; incense for the Priest; myrrh for the tomb. The shape of the child’s whole life was tied up in these gifts, which also explained why Herod regarded him as a threat to his throne and dynasty. What absolute monarch wouldn’t? What Mary and Joseph made of these I do not know. Mary probably saw their significance, but then in the Jewish tradition women were of little account. Still, I managed to tell the story in all its essentials and even if I missed some of the details I was content.
The other important symbolism about the gifts was that they foreshadowed the cross. Few of us at the beginning believed or even guessed that his ministry would inevitably lead to his death; it was foretold in prophecy, and Herod’s massacre of the children simply presaged this. Looking back over his life, one could see that he offended too many establishment figures. His stories always had a sting in the tail and eventually led the powers-that-be to take action, as they always do. The turning over of the tables in the Temple was the last straw.
One of my greatest regrets was that the Jews did not embrace Jesus as the Messiah. All the evidence was there, and I set it out for them clearly, but they chose to ignore this, preferring to trust to their own interpretation of prophecy. Paul had more success with the Gentiles, but even there he preferred to pick and choose so that his letters dealt with the interpretation that he found appropriate.
We thank you, gracious God, for the gift of your servant Matthew, whose gifts provided us with a clear vision of Jesus as the Son of God. May we, through your guidance, follow his message and example that the baby born in a stable might truly become our Brother; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in glory everlasting. Amen.