Publications: Articles - Biblical
The Joyous Feast of Christmas:
Insights from Matthew 2:1-12
The joyous feast of Christmas, its astounding beauty and profound mystery can never, ultimately, be fully exhausted in any theological treatise since that festive event celebrates the birth, in the flesh, of the heavenly and eternal Son of God. That is to say, Christmas is a proclamation of the birth, as a man of the transcendent One, who, having been 'begotten before all ages', from His heavenly Father, nonetheless entered human history being incarnate 'of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary' without a human father. Furthermore, He became a 'curse for us' so as to redeem us from the 'curse of the law' (cf. Gal 3:13). Accordingly the message of Christmas could easily be summarised as a celebration marking the world's salvation through the Son of God, who became a human being for our sake, so that through Him we might become divine sons of the living God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. And as children of God, we too can claim to have become 'heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ' (Rom 8:17) having obtained the ultimate freedom – a freedom even from the bounds of decay and death (cf. Rom 8:19). It is precisely for this reason that Christmas is a matter of life and death since Christ's birth bestows upon the world the possibility for the world to exist in the eternal mode of God, outside of time, space, corruption and death.
Exegesis of Matthew 2:1-12
The wonder and awe of Christmas is beautifully depicted in the Gospel reading assigned for the Divine Liturgy on Christmas day – that is, the account from Matthew 2:1-12. Divided into two parts, according to the location at which the events took place – that is, Jerusalem and Bethlehem - the biblical pericope recounts the coming of the Magi from the East to Jerusalem (Mt 2:1-8), enquiring to Herod about the whereabouts of Jesus, 'the king of the Jews' and their subsequent journey to Bethlehem to worship the vulnerable 'child' and offer Him the well-known gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt 2:9-12). Further reflecting on the structure of the passage, the two main parts of the narrative could alternatively be divided in terms of their description of the two encounters of the Magi with two 'kings' – the false kings of the Jews, Herod, and Jesus, the genuine royal babe in Bethlehem.
In more detail, the first part of the infancy drama depicts:
a) the journey of the Magi, coming from the East in order to find the newly born king of the Jews (Mt 2:1-2);
b) their meeting with Herod who gathered the chief priests and scribes so that he could learn where the Messiah was to be born (Mt 2:3-6); and lastly,
c) Herod's instruction to the Magi to return back to Jerusalem so as to divulge to him where the new born 'babe' was so that he too could allegedly pay homage to Him (Mt 2:7-8).
The second section relates the events, which took place in Bethlehem, namely:
a) the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem (Mt 2:9-10);
b) their joy and worship of the infant and
c) finally their dream not to return to Herod upon leaving Bethlehem (Mt 2:11-12) to go back to their homeland.
In the first section, the biblical account recounts that, upon hearing the news of the birth of Jesus, King Herod became 'frightened':
"When King Herod heard this, he was frightened [ejtaravcqh], and all Jerusalem with him" (Mt 2:3).
Very simply put, this verse tells the reader that not only Herod, but indeed all of Jerusalem's citizens were troubled by the birth of Jesus, the royal babe. The first point to be made is that the English translation, of the original Greek word for ejtaravcqh, as 'was frightened' is far too weak. The Greek word used in this case signifies not only a state of fear, but a condition in which Herod became deeply disturbed and unsettled or totally shaken up and thrown into agitation and confusion at the news of the birth of Jesus. Now, as to the attitude of Herod (3), one is not surprised at such a reaction. Since he was the appointed king of the Jews, it is quite natural that he would have become profoundly terrified upon hearing the news of the birth of, what he would have considered to be, a rival king. Under no circumstance would Herod have tolerated homage being paid to another king as this would have been an indicator to him of his imminent demise. (4) Indeed in verse sixteen of the same chapter, the Gospel records not only the fury of the frenzied Herod at being tricked by the Magi, who had returned back to their homeland another way but also Herod's subsequent ordering to have all innocent boys two years of age or under killed.
The question, however, which arises, and which incidentally often goes unnoticed is why 'all Jerusalem' was also deeply troubled. On the contrary, one would have anticipated an eager expectation on their part, since the Old Testament prophets had foretold the coming of a Messiah who would deliver the house of Israel from slavery and bondage. (5) However, as the prophet Isaiah had predicted, the coming of the Messiah would be greeted with indifference or spiritual complacency since the Jews had become entrenched in their deceitful ways opting for slavery with which they were all too familiar, instead of the greatest gift of freedom:
"They shall compensate for every garment that has been acquired by deceit and all clothing with restitution; and they shall be willing, even if they had been burnt with fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" (Is 9:5-6 LXX).
Unlike the wise men from Persia, who had been attracted by the birth of 'Jesus, the king of the Jews', the house of Israel did not even seek to ask where, let alone follow the Magi to find their newly born King. One would have expected, even purely out of self-interest and gain, that they would, at least follow so as to verify the truth of the suggestions made by the Magi since this newly born king was claimed to be their king – i.e., 'the king of the Jews' - who would rescue them from slavery. One can only imagine, from this, the extent to which they had been consumed by their daily, human and earthly affairs thereby remaining entirely apathetic. It is precisely for this reason that St Matthew openly displayed his vehemence against Israel and especially its religious establishment.
Reception of the Gentiles
Following on from this, it could be said that the most salient detail in this part of the narrative, is this strikingly contrasting reaction, to Jesus, between those residing in Jerusalem and the non-Israelites, in this case the Magi. Indeed it would be no overstatement to claim that the adoration of Jesus by the Gentiles, and His rejection by the house of Israel is at the foreground of the entire Matthean Gospel and culminates in the passion narrative. Whereas one would have expected the house of Israel to receive Jesus with open arms, since He was of Jewish lineage – indeed from Davidic progeny - the Gospel narrates an entirely opposite phenomenon. In this case, it was the foreigners who set off on a long and arduous journey to meet the One, for whom the Jewish nation had long-awaited, exhibiting, in this way an overtly keen receptivity to Jesus, one not evident amongst the Israelites. In setting up this deliberate contrast (synkrisis) between the Magi and the Jews, the Gospel emphasizes, in this way, not only the openness of God to all nations but also anticipates Jerusalem's rejection and persecution of the Messiah in the Gospel (cf Mt 23:37-39).
Theologically speaking, the Gospel clearly states that the new-born king would embrace the entire world and be king for all, irrespective of class, gender or nationality. In this sense, not only is the propriety of the worship of the Son of God for all the nations clearly underscored but also the fact that God's salvation is a universal one, a blessing for all nations and not just Israel, as indeed God had formerly promised to Abraham and the prophets. Thus, the Gospel beautifully captures them universalism of Christianity in the Magi who prefigure the inclusivity, on the part of God in His koinonia with the entire cosmos.
The gospel passage continues by noting Bethlehem of Judea as the birthplace of Jesus. That this was the commonly accepted belief regarding where Jesus, as the descendent of David, would be born is suggested throughout the New Testament Scriptures – one example being the following:
"Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?" (Jn 7:42).
Bethlehem, also known as Ephratah, and meaning 'the house of bread' was situated on a high fertile grey limestone ridge which had a summit at each end resembling an elongated 'u' shape figure. It was approximately ten kilometres to the south of Jerusalem and a considerably insignificant town. However its importance lay in its long history, especially since Bethlehem was the city from where David had come and it was from this city that God would send the great deliverer to His people, Jesus Christ, David's greater son as suggested for example by the prophet Micah:
"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Mic 5:2).
According to the prophecy, the significance of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, even though His home was Nazareth, lies in that it fulfilled Micah's prediction, thereby further substantiating Jesus' royal Davidic descent and underscoring yet again that He was the awaited saving Messiah. That is to say, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem served to identify him as the long-awaited Messiah who was of David's line of progeny.
The Journey of the Magi
The journey of the Magi to Bethlehem is described as one which was divinely guided, in that the Magi's quest to find Jesus was directed by a star – the very same star which they had formerly seen in the East upon setting off for their journey. This star, which now went before them, emphasized God's continued providence not only for the commencement of the Magi's journey but also for their entire sojourn. Furthermore, the star showed the cosmic importance of Jesus' birth in that, even the stars – i.e., created nature in general - paid tribute to Jesus. In having experienced God's continual presence throughout their journey, coupled with the fact that they were about to see the child, the Magi are depicted in the Gospel as being filled with joy:
"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 [ejcavrhsan caravn megavlhn sfovdra]" (Mt 2:9-10).
The joy of the Magi's encounter with the new-born infant is emphatically expressed. Whereas St Matthew could have simply written that the Magi were joyous [simply with one word - ejcavrhsan], he added three extra words – namely, caravn megavlhn sfovdra [literally 'they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy'] – to emphasize the extremely heightened sense of joy upon meeting the long-awaited Messiah. In finding the One whom they were seeking, they were at once delighted by, and captivated at, the glorious vision of heaven's encounter with the world. Indeed, it is this festive air of the celebratory character of Christmas which is especially evident in the Liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church.
The Joy of the Magi
The result of this overwhelming joy led them to 'worship' Jesus – an action exclusively reserved to the one God in the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed the threefold repetition of the Greek word for 'worship' - proskunevw (Mt 2:2, 8 & 11) - climaxing in verse eleven, reinforces the honour and worship rendered to the infant Jesus, thereby declaring in the strongest possible way not only Jesus' royalty but also His divinity. The profundity of this worship is heightened when one remains mindful of the fact that what the Magi saw were not majestic palaces decorated in marble, or a mother crowned like a queen with a diadem or still more, a royal babe clothed in purple and gold, and holding a sceptre. Instead, what they saw was a carpenter's wife dressed in modest clothes; a 'house' (Mt 2:11) fit more for animals than people, and a new-born king dressed in swaddling clothes (cf Lk 2:12). Yet, their doxological attitude was able to transform the 'strange mystery' right before their eyes, so that they could now behold it in an entirely different light – as the very encounter and unity of the heavenly realm with that of the earthly. And so, at the sight of, what the world could call a 'seemingly unworthy boy' lay the grandeur and majesty of the divinity, the ineffable grandeur of God.
Both God and Human
Such a depiction by St Matthew, not only beautifully brought to the fore the reality of Christ's divinity – portrayed in the Magi's worship of the child Jesus, but also His humanity - the emphasis, for example on the ordinariness of the boy Jesus with His mother (cf Mt 2:11). That this Theanthropic Christological theme is evident throughout the pericope can be seen by at least two other references: firstly, the symbolism of the gifts bestowed by the Magi to Jesus and secondly, the choice of certain words employed by St Matthew which bring to light the divine-human 'character' of Christ. As to the specific gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - itself the fulfilment of a prophecy from Isaiah (6) - they betray both the divinity and humanity of Jesus: gold symbolizing royalty; frankincense, divinity; and myrrh, a symbol of the mortification of human flesh, and therefore the child's humanity. In a hymn sung at the Vespers Service of Christmas, (7) we note:
"When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, Magi coming from the east worshipped God made man. And eagerly opening their treasures, they offered to Him precious gifts: refined gold, as to the king of the ages, and frankincense, as to the God of all; and myrrh they offered to the Immortal, as to one, three days dead. Come all you nations, and let us worship Him who was born to save our souls".
Therefore in both cases we see that the gifts are an indication that Jesus was both perfect God and perfect man. The divine and human natures in the one person of the baby Jesus are further emphasised by St Matthew in certain words used to describe Jesus as the newborn king – especially in Mt 2:1-2 - the words in question being those which refer to 'being born' – gennavw and tivktw:
"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born [tou dev ΔIhsou gennhqevnto] in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men… came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king [oJ tecqeiv" basileuv"] of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage" (Mt 2:1-2).
Since the English translation of the two different Greek verbal forms for 'to be born' is the same - even though in Greek they are different, 'gennavw' and 'tivktw' are used - there is accordingly nothing particularly instructive, from the English, which could show the divine-human qualities of Jesus. This gives rise to the following questions: why are there two different Greek words indicating the idea 'to be born'? Is there any significance in this or are two different words employed purely for stylistic variation? Strictly speaking, the literal meaning of 'gennavw' is 'I become the father of' in the sense of begetting or engendering (8) whereas as 'tivktw' signifies the role of the woman who gives birth to or bears a child.
Without excluding the assertion to a linguistic variance outrightly, and aware of the dangers of drawing subsequent theological conclusions purely from linguistic data, a suggestion, which might explain this variance, but which is, in no way binding is the following: knowing, from both the Biblical and Patristic traditions, that Jesus was born in time from a human mother but without a human father, since He was 'incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary' as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith states, could not the first phrase in verse two, which states that 'after Jesus was born', using the Greek verb 'gennhqevnto' be an indication, that in the birth or incarnation of the Son of God, it was God the Father who willed that this take place by the Holy Spirit.(9) Understood in this way, it would be said that the verb 'gennhqevnto' in verse 2 is a reference to the role of God the Father in begetting the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the birth of the pre-eternal Son of God in history would rightly be understood from its Trinitarian perspective: that is, God the Father who willed that Jesus be born into the world by the Holy Spirit. This is in line with Orthodox Trinitarian theology, which would want to speak, at the same time, of the distinctive actions of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the historical person of Jesus Christ. And so, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the linguistic variance could serve to betray the divine and human natures of Jesus, the new born child.
From all the above it can be concluded that the joy and marvellous wonder of Christmas lies in that the wall of partition dividing heaven and earth was destroyed once and for all, thereby opening up and inaugurating God's heavenly kingdom within the world. That is, in becoming a human being, Jesus Christ bestowed upon the human person the possibility of becoming 'god' by grace (2Pt 1:4). Indeed, in the birth of Jesus Christ, the mysterious wonder of the divine Godhead was decisively revealed and experienced giving the world a vision of the invisible, ineffable and indescribable God. That is, bearing the express image of the Father (cf Heb 1:3), Jesus Christ's birth in human history, bestowed upon the entire cosmos the possibility of beholding the grandeur of God. And this 'strange paradox' of God becoming human was not an event which concerned only the past, but is significant for the present, and indeed for the future of the world, since, by it, the whole of the created human nature was taken out of the narrow and death-begetting boundaries of isolation and inspired with the optimism of deification by grace. It is this unprecedented joy of God who is now Emmanuel, that is, God with us – and indeed forever with us - that the feast of Christmas invites all faithful to experience.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Even though too much is not known about the Magi, it can be said that they were members of a Persian priestly class whose knowledge of astronomy gave them insights unknown to other nations. Their Persian origin however have not gone unquestioned – for example St Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist believed that the Magi were from Arabia (Dial. 77.4; 78.1; 106,4). Clement of Alexandria believed that they were from Persia (Strom. 126.96.36.199). In the Liturgical tradition they are identified as wise men coming from Persia. In the early Middle Ages, in the West the names of the Magi came to be identified as follows: Casper, Melchior and Balthasar.
2. Cf the King James version which reads: "When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Mt 2:3). .
3. Herod, the most influential member of an Idumean family, had deeply immersed himself in Jewish affairs of the first century B.C. and A.D., and had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate
in 40 B.C. He was a skilful and masterful politician who was able to gain control of Jerusalem in 37 B.C. by playing off Roman and Jewish factions against each other. He was known for his brutality, even to members of his own family. Beyond the Biblical evidence pointing to the cruelty of Herod, much can be learnt from the historian Josephus in Ant. 14-18.
4. Interestingly, the Patristic tradition understood the Egyptian Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses, 'the first redeemer' as a typology of Herod's attempt to kill Jesus, the second Redeemer.
5. Indeed from this pericope, the words 'king' and 'Messiah' are used interchangeably signifying Jesus' Messianic role.
6. Cf. Is 60:6-7: "A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house".
7. Lity, Vespers of Christmas.
8. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: CUP, 1958), 155.
9. Cf. also the use of the verb 'gennavw' in the first chapter of Matthew's Gospel which lists the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. Also cf. the Christmas Katavasia of the third ode: "To the Son who was begotten of the Father [ejk Patrov" gennhqevnti] without change before all ages, and in the last times was without seed made flesh of the Virgin…".