Sunday, January 1, 2012

Christmas Clarity

As Christmas came upon us, I'm sure many of us saw nativity scenes/creche with the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and various animals all around the manger with a star above the stable. We have sung many carols as well, like "The First Nowell." While such a song and scene are nice and remind us of the story, they paint an inaccurate picture of the events that we read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

To start, we look at Luke, which has details regarding Jesus' actual birth. This is where we receive the details of Mary and Joseph being turned away because there was no room in the inn, so they had to stay in a stable, which is where Mary gives birth. Shortly after this, the scene cuts to shepherds watching over their flocks. An angel appears, telling them the news of the Christ being born and where to find this newborn child. Notice there is no mention of a star or magi.

Now we turn to Matthew. Here, the birth itself is glossed over, with attention more on Joseph's actions (1:18-25). Chapter 2 then turns to the Magi, who come to Jerusalem looking for the "King of the Jews". We are familiar with the events: Herod wants to know where the child is also to kill him, the Magi are told to not go back, and Herod goes on a rampage. However, there are a couple key details to note. We read in 2:7 that Herod finds out when the star first appeared. This is what aids him in his decision to kill all boys in the vicinity under the age of two (2:16). It seems highly likely then, that Jesus is a toddler at this point. Also, the Magi do not come to a stable, but a house (2:11), so the Holy Family has found permanent residence by the time these Magi arrive with their three kinds of gifts. And speaking of, we do not know how many Magi there were. I'd like to think there was a sizable group of these foreigners, but that detail is omitted.

It is because of these details that we celebrate the visit of the Magi separately from Christmas in the feast of Epiphany, which is Jan. 6 (the twelfth day of Christmas). Many parishes with nativity scenes may move the Magi away, but then bring them closer as Epiphany approaches, symbolizing their journey.

The Magi themselves, according to scholars, could have been Chaldeans or from another Eastern culture. These men were astronomers essentially, hence why the star is instrumental in their search. This should further impress us that even these Gentiles recognized that something incredible had occurred, while many Jews missed it entirely, which is seen throughout Jesus' ministry.

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