MARY – SESSION 7

INTRO We have seen how the originating largely Jewish Christian community whose needs gave rise to Matthew’s Gospel places Mary strongly in the line of women in the Old Testament, playing her part in the fulfilment of the Messianic Prophecies. The Genealogy and the Annunciation to Joseph makes clear that Jesus gathers in all of the history of the Jewish People, is both a Son of David and a Son of Abraham, and that his was virginal conception. We now move on the explore how Matthew develops these themes in the remaining parts of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospel that bears Matthew’s name.

[1] ‘Wise men came to Jerusalem from the East’ (Matthew 2: 1-12). Here we have a story rich in symbolism, and coming from a different oral tradition for Luke’s infancy accounts. Unlike Luke, Matthew does not describe Jesus’s birth, but merely states that he was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, the place to which widowed Ruth the Gentile migrated with her Jewish mother-in-law. What concerns Matthew is to present Jesus, not only as the Messiah Son of David, but also as the New Moses, the liberator of His People. Furthermore Jesus gathers into his own life story the history, sufferings and journey of His own People. The author uses a familiar rabbinical ‘literary form’ – that of ‘Midrash’. ‘Midrash’ are rabbinical commentaries on Scripture that use imaginative ‘story-telling’ to explore the deeper meaning of the event or passage being commented upon. The tyrannical and ruthless Herod was closely related to the Roman Emperors and was placed (with no hereditary right) on the throne to rule in service of Rome, the occupying force. We know from external contemporary literature that Herod the Great ordered more than one massacre of his own people, in order to suppress any threat to his power. So although this particular massacre of the Holy Innocents may or may not be historically accurate, it is true to Herod’s character. His tyranny evokes the cruelty of Pharaoh who to suppress Hebrew opposition to slavery seeks to kill the male offspring of the Hebrew people. Gentile ‘Magi’ – seekers after wisdom – come looking for a new infant King heralded by a ‘star’ in the heavens. They were probably astrologer/astronomers, learned men from Syria or Persia, probably of the Zoroastrian faith. Whatever the historical reality or otherwise of the ‘Star’ Matthew’s inclusion speaks to us of an event on earth of truly immense and divinely appointed importance. The birth of this child, hidden from everyone, is in fact of truly Cosmic importance. Their arrival and search disturbs not only Herod (understandably as he knew he had no real claim to the throne) but perhaps more surprisingly ‘the whole of Jerusalem’ (Matthew 2: 3). Here we have a fore-shadowing of the disturbance of Pilate and the rejection of Jesus by the High Priests (Matthew 27: 11-26). Let us remember that the central purpose of every Gospel is to proclaim the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, so the beginning chapters of the Gospel narratives introduce this central event from the beginning.

[2] ‘And you, Bethlehem, are by no means least.’ (Matthew 2: 6 quoting Micah 5: 4). The use of the word ‘least’ is interesting – Jesus is born in the place described as ‘least’ among the clans of Judah. Matthew in ch 25: 40 in the Last Judgment parable, has Jesus identifying himself with the least of humanity – what we do to the least we do to Jesus! Herod disposes of the least brutally; the Jewish leadership reject Him who is the Prophet of the least and plot His death. Throughout Latin America during the long decades of vicious dictatorships (so often supported by US administrations and military) show the same characteristics – the least, the landless peasants are disposable, of no value and those who defend them have to be silenced, like St Oscar Romero and so many others in El Salvador. The same is going on today among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin for the sake of quick profits by Rain Forest clearances.  And in our own UK history, the treatment of English landlords in Ireland precipitating the Potato Famine and the absent Scottish landlords of the Highland clearances, we see the same dynamic. This picturesque story of Herod and the Wise Men touches a constantly recurring theme of brutal repression of the poor. But from the ‘least’ comes the Saviour, the ‘shepherd’, the new reality we call the Kingdom! When will our world (and our Church) learn that the poor and the marginalised hold the key to the world’s salvation! In passing it is useful to note that the author of this Gospel ‘adapts’ the quote from Micah to emphasise that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah King.

[3] ‘Having listened, they set out … the star halted over the place where the child was’ (Matthew 2: 9). Perhaps we can see in this searchers after Wisdom, a call in our own age to be ourselves constant in our search for God. When a man or a woman requests to join a Benedictine monastic community, the Abbot or Abbess asks the person: ‘Do you seek God?’- not ‘have you found God?’. Our life’s journey is a constant search after the Divine, because like the star, God is a light that goes before us, leads us into an unknown future, leads us to a greater communion of heart with the Divine Love – which is precisely true Wisdom, the Wisdom made Flesh in Jesus. Never stop searching, never stop listening to others, to our fellow pilgrims and seekers in the Body of Christ, to our world in its pain and joy, in its genius and folly! (as the Magi in their search listened to even to Herod!). We, the Church, are called to be counter-cultural in welcoming  these ‘foreigners’ and ‘strangers among us’, recognising their wisdom and learning from them and protecting their humanity and dignity against all assaults (like the assaults on our asylum-seeking sisters and brothers).  Furthermore, we are called to ‘go and tell’ all we have ‘seen and heard’. Let us constantly gaze and look, listen and learn so that we can effectively, like the poor shepherds in Luke ‘go and tell…all we have seen and heard’. We are on a life-long Journey of Faith, endless discovery – never be satisfied with what we learnt in the past, but always be  a seeker after God, discovering new depths of the Divine Wisdom which is the Divine Love.

[4] ‘Opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts’ (Matthew 2: 11). The gifts are clearly symbolic as well as being precious. They symbolise the ‘wealth of the nations’ streaming to Jerusalem as prophesied in Isaiah 60: 5, Jeremiah 6: 20, Ezechiel 27: 22, Psalm 71: 10-15. Here Matthew is emphasising the Universal Mission of Israel that Jesus fulfils. The Messianic Age is characterised by the nations coming to Israel to find true wisdom and paying homage to the One God. In John’s Gospel 12: 20-23 is was the Gentile nations (in this case the Greeks) that revealed to Jesus that His ‘hour had come’. The Feast of the Epiphany is one of the great Feasts of Mission – there are two dimensions to Mission: ‘Go and Tell’ and ‘Come and See’ – a community whose love proclaims and reveals authentic Wisdom, and the reaching out to bring healing, justice and new life to the world around us. The Spirit seeks to build communities (of ‘living stones’ 2 Peter 2: 4-5) that themselves are sacraments where seekers can ‘come and see’ the Living Christ among us, the new Humanity that we are liberated to live and be inspired to meet Christ risen and alive among us. If we ‘go and tell’, but have nothing for others to ‘come and see’, then the Mission of the Gospel fails! Are our parishes ‘houses of the Lord’ where others can find Divine Wisdom that is Love? ‘By this shall all know you are my disciples, by the love you bear for one another’ (John 13: 34-35) and ‘Father may they be so completely one that the world will believe…’ (John 17: 21-23). As the Church, globally and locally, we must welcome to gifts that new cultures and peoples, new learning and science bring – welcome and learn and integrate into our living and proclaiming the Good News for our contemporary Age. Everyone is gifted, it is for us to welcome their gifts. And above all the gift they bring, the gift we bring is ourselves more than what we do or what we have – the gift God has made us to be! In the words of the beautiful carol by Rosetti, we may not have sheep or gold, frankincense or myrrh to bring, but we do have our hearts! Jesus saw that the poor widow who gave her little coin – her ‘everything’ – was so much more valuable than the large cheques and purses of the wealthy! Our hearts, our ‘everything’, ourselves – that is all God wants – that is all that the stripped and impoverished Jesus offered on the Cross to God – a heart perfected in Love that redeemed the world. 

[5] ‘and they returned to their own country by a different way’ (Matthew 2: 12). Once more God speaks through a dream – a common form of communication in the Hebrew and the ancient traditions. Modern psychiatry has helped us to see the importance of dreams in both our health and in our self-discovery and healing of our deepest and often buried anxieties. The Ancients knew more than we in our scientific world often give them credit. The Wise ones searched, listened, looked and saw – they brought gifts and received the greatest of gifts . Their wisdom led them to be humble enough to discover the fulness of Wisdom in a little child held in His mother’s arms in a place of poverty. Greatness is to be found in the ‘Divine Littleness’ – listening to ‘the little people’ of the earth that others disregard – the wisdom that comes from the margins and the edges of our society. The wealthy found salvation among the poor. From then on these changed Wise Ones journeyed on in a different way – the Way of Christ, the Way of the foolish Wisdom of Divine Love. (see 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 and 26-31). Meeting Jesus changes us and He calls us to walk His Way. ‘They returned to their own country’ (Matthew 2: 12) but returned as different people with different priorities and a new love. Jesus is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14: 6). 

AFTERWORD Mary is only mentioned once in the story of the Wise Men – mentioned holding Jesus Who is the Wisdom they were searching for. Mary is the ‘Seat of All Wisdom’, who in giving us Christ, gives us Wisdom. She teaches us where Wisdom is to be found, by searching for Jesus, living for Jesus, allowing ourselves to be shaped as disciples by Jesus.  As ever she draws us not to herself but to Him ‘Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us’ 

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