How we Know the Magi Arrived Later (and What That Means for Us)

Feast of the Epiphany

Did you notice that our three wise men statues arrived in our manger scene only on this Sunday of the Epiphany? That’s because the Magi were not in Bethlehem on Christmas Day. In many movies and imaginations, the visit of the shepherds and the arrival of the Magi get smushed together as events of the same night. St. Luke’s Gospel recalls Jesus being wrapped and laid in a feedbox and speaks about the shepherds, but St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us the Magis’ tale with several signs that the Magi came quite a bit later.

For starters, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem after their long journey from the east expecting that the new king has already been born. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” they ask. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Once Herod had “ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance” and had learned from the Jewish chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born, the wicked king sent the Magi to Bethlehem.

St. Matthew says “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.” There’s no mention of a cave or stable; it appears that the Holy Family has moved into better lodgings since Jesus’ birth. The Magi “prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” This happy encounter occurs at least forty days after Christmas. We know this because of a detail from the Gospel of Luke.

According to the Law of the Old Covenant, a Jewish woman who had given birth was required to wait a certain number of days and then provide sacrifices at the temple. For a baby boy, the mother had to wait at least forty days, then she was to bring the priest two animals for sacrifice; namely, a one-year-old lamb and either a turtledove or a pigeon. However, if she could not afford the lamb, God’s Law allowed her to just offer either two turtledoves or two pigeons instead.

St. Luke indicates that for Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple, after the completion of those forty days, Mary and Joseph were poor enough to take that second option, offering “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.” If the Magi had already visited, the Holy Family would have had some gold for buying a lamb. But Mary and Joseph did not have that gift because the Magi had not yet come. In fact, what King Herod goes on to do suggests it could have been more than a year later before the Magi arrived.

When Herod realizes the Magi have evaded him (for they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod) the paranoid and ruthless king does a horrifically evil thing. He orders that all the baby boys in Bethlehem – not just newborns but all those two years old and younger – be killed. This suggests King Herod thought the baby which the Magi sought could already be up to one or two years old.

The Magi arrive at our manger scene today on Epiphany Sunday because the Gospels show they celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ together with his Holy Family a time after Christmas Day. It’s interesting to learn about the Gospels and the life and times of Jesus, but collecting bits of biblical or historical trivia is not the point. What significance does the Magis’ later arrival have for our lives as Christians? One thing it means for Christ’s Church is that Christmas is not just a one day event but a whole season to celebrate.

What happens in our world on December 26th or 27th? Lots of people take down their decorations and throw out their Christmas trees. The Christmas songs played since before Thanksgiving disappear from the radio. Mentions of Christmas vanish from mass media because the opportunity to sell things to people has passed. Our secular culture uses Advent as its Christmas season, filling it with stressful hustling and hassles like Joseph and Mary experienced preceding Jesus’ birth. That birth is allowed one day of restful, spiritual, joyful peace and then the event is over. But for Catholics and Christians of times past, Christmas Eve is not the beginning of the end of Christmas, but the start of the Christmas Season. We are in that season now, decked in the liturgical color of white through the third Sunday after December 25th, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is next Sunday.

Beware of taking too many cues from the world of Herod, whose interests in Christmas are not pure. Let us learn instead from the Magi about celebrating this season. They come after Christmas day but are still “overjoyed” to celebrate his birth. They come to him, honor him, savor their time with him. They rest with him at Bethlehem. It appears the Magi did not come and leave in just one day, but were able to be warned in a dream not to return to Herod because they chose to rest with Christ and his Holy Family.

Living differently for Christ bears unexpected blessings and benefits. For instance, my good friend Katie told me yesterday that she gets a Christmas tree and puts it up on Christmas Eve. Doing it this way not only helps keep the whole season special but she gets a tree each year for free. (By that point, Christmas tree sellers are just happy to have her take one away.) Imagine no longer having to fit everything that is Christmas into the month of December. Like the Magi, you can plan trips and gatherings for after Christmas Day.

There’s still one week of Christmas left this year. Make a plan to keep it special. Play and sing your Christmas songs. Keep on feasting. Create some fun. And think of how next year you and yours can celebrate throughout the entire Christmas season. Like the Magi before you, let how you celebrate Christmas be guided by heavenly light.

One Response to “How we Know the Magi Arrived Later (and What That Means for Us)”

  1. Jennifer F. Says:

    You talk about your friend who starts celebrating Christmas on Christmas eve, and say: “Imagine no longer having to fit everything that is Christmas into the month of December.” But the actual liturgical season of Christmas is only around 3 weeks long, which is… shorter than the month of December. Not to mention that most people I know don’t toss their trees until after new years.

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