FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS: “THE PROCREANT URGE OF THE WORLD” Matthew 2:1-12 “Where is He?”
“Each of us is inevitable. “ WW
“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end, / But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. /There was never more any inception than there is now, / Nor any more youth or age than there is now, / and will never be any more perfection than there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. / Urge, and urge, and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.” Walt Whitman: Song of Myself
The Visitation of the Magi and the fear of King Herod are two events integrated into one narrative by Matthew. He alone of all the evangelists tells this story. It does not appear that the legend of the Magi existed in any of the sources at Matthew’s disposal. He himself must have created this narrative because he wanted to use it for a particular Christian apologetic. I will explore the legend of the Magi as summary of Matthew’s soteriology. The Visitation of the Magi is an epiphany that unveils the event of redemption. That the event occurred “In the time of King Herod,” is meant to convey the idea that what Matthew is presenting are facts of history. He interweaves matters of fact and matters of faith without leaving clear edges to indicate the difference. According to Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem rather than in his hometown of Nazareth as a result of prophecy. Mt. 2:6 quoting Micah 5:2. No other reason is offered for his parents being there. Matthew’s motif is that Jesus is a child of promise, his birth prophesied in an earlier time and awaited eagerly. The reason for this expectation is not as clear as supposed. In Matthew, “wise men from the East” probably Persia and Babylonia came in search of him, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” 2:2.
Not much is known of them. As the legend of the Magi developed in later tradition, it gave their number as three, sometimes as high as eight, and even gave them names. But that is not important for my reflection. The Magi came to Jerusalem is inquire about the child. Why did they not go directly to Bethlehem? If the star was indeed leading them, why did it lead them to Jerusalem? Jerusalem was the religious and cultural center of the Jews. It is also the home of the king. When one is seeking a king one needs to seek in a place where kings reside, that is, in palaces. If there are answers the Magi would certainly find them there. Of whom did they inquire as to the location of the child? Matthew offers no answers to these questions. The presence of the Magi in Jerusalem must have been widely known. Certainly King Herod had heard of them. There were asking about a “child who had been born King of the Jews.” This got his attention. Up to this point in the gospel, nothing has been said about a king of the Jews. All that has been said is that “he will save his people from their sins.” 1:21.
The idea of kingship is introduced by the Magi. Why does Matthew present this new idea at this point? There is ample cultural evidence in the gentile world that kings were honored in this way, but it is not a part of the ancient Jewish tradition. The motif of the Visitation of the Magi must have something to do with the arrival of the gospel message in lands that were predominantly gentile and Hellenistic. Even so, it would have had to indicate something particular to people of faith. I believe Matthew’s motif is the developing universalism of his gospel, culminating in the command of Jesus to go and make disciples “of all nations,” in 28:19. Matthew wants to show that not only is the birth of Jesus predicted in Jewish prophecy; it is also predicted in the stars. “For we have observed his star at its rising,” 2:2, and consequently, the wise men followed the star to Jerusalem. Matthew is proclaiming that all are included in “his people” whom he will save from their sins, both Jews and gentiles. I believe that there is another motif concealed in the legend of the Magi. They offer “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 2:11. Some of these gifts are associated with anointing for burial. The Jewish prophecy speaks about birth; the legend of the Magi speaks about death. The gospel message at every point has in sight the death of Jesus. However, the symbolism of the gifts does not yield a greater understanding than that the Magi presented gifts to the parents of the child, and should be seen as nothing more than this.
King Herod heard about the birth of the child and the arrival of the Magi and he was frightened by what he heard. It says “all Jerusalem with him” was afraid. What caused this fear? I believe the fear of King Herod and the fear of “all Jerusalem” had quite different causes. Likely, King Herod feared a challenger, especially one predicted by ancient prophecy. It is possible that “all Jerusalem” feared the reaction of King Herod. In both cases, they feared for themselves. King Herod’s fear has a particular object, and with effort it was possible to locate and possibly destroy this object. His fear was something natural and manageable. The fear of all Jerusalem was very different. They did not know why they were afraid. With the birth of the child and the arrival of the Magi, something had descended upon the people of Jerusalem of which they were unaware, but which made them uneasy. A sense of foreboding was all around them that they could not point to, or define, but which laid heavily upon their hearts. This is not fear but anxiety. “All Jerusalem” was overtaken by anxiety. They were powerless in the face of this anxiety. Only that which resides in anxiety could release them. I sometimes wonder why did they not go to Bethlehem and see for themselves. I should have thought that the birth of a king should have attracted large numbers of people to his birth place. But Matthew’s narrative intention would certainly have subverted that.
King Herod consulted with the chief priests and the scribes about the place of the birth of the child. He was told that prophecy indicated that it was Bethlehem. He then consulted secretly with the Magi about the exact time when they received the sign from the star. The consultation would have been awkward, for King Herod to be seeking help from the Magi who had come in search of a new born king in the kingdom of Herod. The answer they gave him is not stated but for the Magi to have arrived at the birth of the child, they would have had to have seen the rising star at least a year earlier, if not more. Their caravan would have traveled many months to reach Bethlehem at the appointed time of birth. King Herod would have surmised that much for himself. Yet, he had to be completely certain. I suspect that the only reason they left there with their lives was that King Herod thought he could use them to locate the child in Bethlehem. He sent them on a mission: locate the child and inform me. The reason he gave was that he “may go and pay him homage.” 2:8. Really. I am reminded that when Oedipus was born it was predicted that he would grow up to kill his father. His parents then gave the new born to a shepherd to raise him as his own, and never disclose his royal birth. Oedipus did indeed kill his father, though he did not know that it was his father. I am sure such cultural legends were well known in Jerusalem, even and especially by King Herod. These two events, the consultations with the chief priests and the Magi, show that King Herod had considerable power which he used to address that which he feared.
The Magi went on their way, following the star. They had left their homes and families and all that is dear to them and had followed a star, not knowing where it may lead them. Something similar happens when Jesus enters into the lives of people. They leave everything of value and worth behind, to follow him. They too do not know where he may lead them. He touches something in the deepest parts of their soul that only he can nurture and sustain. They follow him, because what goes before, what goes ahead invokes and welcomes the future. Those who touch the plow cannot look back. The plow that uproots the soil lays bare their soul to the cleansing power of his word. So it is for the Magi also. For the Magi this was not a simple act of following a star. This act was the substance of their faith. They were being faithful to their religious heritage, the content of their teaching, their vocation. For the Magi, their lives depended upon following not only this star, but the cosmos that gave them life and sustained them daily. They saw the story of their lives played out in the heavens. They were at home in the night because for them when darkness falls upon the face of the earth, the glory of the heavens is revealed in all its brilliance.
What is it about this special star that they are following? What message does it hold for them whose faith is much different from that of the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem? This new star had entered into their cosmos, burst upon their vision, from a source unknown to them. Its origin was as mysterious as its arrival. This star declared to them that something new has happened that will affect all of humanity. They had to make it known to the whole world; that was their mission, to declare to the whole world that something new had entered into creation, something that existed before all creation, something without which creation would not have come into being. What the star announced to them is “seek me! I am the King of the Jews.” But the Magi understood that this was not just a king, and not just for one people. What is hidden in the phrase “the King of the Jews” is nothing less than the divine. The Magi who read the cosmos know that the divine who encompasses the entire cosmos has made an appearance and must be revealed. William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” is instructive here. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” When the ears hear “King of the Jews” the heart understands the transcendent has arrived, the eternal has dawned. The child whom they seek, whom they have seen spread across the nightly cosmic vastness, beckons them, speaking through a star whose light he has always been and will always be because he is the Light before all lights, the Word before all words. They have arrived in time to witness “the procreant urge of the world.” The cosmos with one new star is no longer the cosmos of an ancient day, nor of yesterday. The new star transforms, renews, and initiates an ever-creating cosmos.
Early Christian apocalyptic such as the Revelation of John concealed the divine under a rich symbolism that was easily understandable to the initiates, the persecuted Christian community. They understood that the symbolism itself could not contain the divine, but that to embrace the symbolism is to embrace the divine. I take “King of the Jews” to be an apocalyptic symbol also that the early Christians understood and embraced. The fact of history is that Jesus never was the King of the Jews. He lived and died as a prophet and an itinerant preacher, regardless of the inscription on the cross. This is what history declares. However, Matthew’s narrative is the eschatological unfolding of the divine that has sought shelter in a new born child. This child too is symbolic. Through him is expressed “the procreant urge of the world.” The Micah 5:2 passage cited by Matthew says that the one who shall come forth is he “whose origin is of old, from ancient days.” Bethlehem has become the eschatological center for the “procreant urge of the world.” He who is from everlasting to everlasting, who was before all creation, must arrive among us, “for us and for our salvation” as we arrive among ourselves, in a human birth. He who has no beginning begins as we do. The gradual unfolding of grace which began in creation with Earth’s Adam, continues in a home with Mary’s Jesus: the home, Eden’s completion, the simplicity of the grandeur of God.
The Magi followed the star which stopped over the place where the child was. “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” 2:10. To be overwhelmed means to be taken over so completely that one loses sight of who one is. One’s existence is absorbed by that which overwhelms. One who is overwhelmed is not pushed down into oblivion, but is transported into the light of that which overwhelms. To be overwhelmed by joy is to be transported into the recurrence of salvation. Salvation as joy recurs because the exile always exists as exile, and only as exile can the exiled one be transfigured. The joy is the fount of all life to come. It comes upon them before they enter into the sacred place of birth. Just as Adam was transformed so that his eyes could be made to see Eve, something new in creation, so also the Magi had to be made ready to behold the new thing that had arrived upon the earth. Joy too arrives; joy recurs, it does not arrive to remain. It meets, comes upon, overwhelms. Joy is the epiphany of that which still remains sheltered, and what is sheltered is what grants salvation, the transfiguration of the exile who has traveled far to enter into the nearness of the divine.
To be overwhelmed by joy is to live in the constancy of Absolution, in the enduring presence of the Absolute. The Magi were not merely happy when the star stopped, they were changed. They are no longer the same as what they arrived. Transfigured by joy they can now enter the house of the divine, the sacred place of birth. Transfigured by the epiphany that hides in joy, only now can they kneel down and worship the one who had called them to follow his star to this holy ground. From that joy, the fount of all life to come, pour out gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. I have said earlier that one may not push too far the symbolism of the gifts. They gave gifts; that is as much as one may say. Matthew emphasizes neither the gifts nor the number. In the presence of the divine, and standing upon holy ground, that which is human pours forth itself as gratitude. Worship is nothing other than delivering all that is human into all that is divine. It is the complete surrender to, and irreversible return to the fount from which all life originates. The Magi did not travel to worship “the King of the Jews.” From the beginning they were led here. They were called by a star and by its light they were guided to this place. And when all was accomplished they were warned in a dream as to their further course. At every step they were led by the divine. Their journey is the unfolding of an epiphany. It is in the act of kneeling and worship that their journey comes to its end, but not an end as a point from which nothing further evolves. This end is the place from which the journey of the Magi begins again, and so “they returned to their own country.” Humanity, the Exile, has come home.