The story begins with a genealogy that places Jesus in the line of descent from Abraham and David. It is Joseph in this birth story who is told by an angel in a dream that Mary's surprising pregnancy is the work of the Lord. Joseph accepts this as the will of God and takes Mary into his home. Jesus is born, and then the gospel relates the story of the wise men. After the wise men slip out of Judea, Herod sends soldiers to kill all the children of Bethlehem under two years old. But Joseph is warned in another dream and so he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He only returns to Judea after the death of Herod.
If we listen closely to the story in the gospel of Matthew, we will hear that events are taking place according to prophecy. Mary's pregnancy, the birth in Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, the slaying of the children-all, the narrator of the story tells us, were foretold by the prophets. This theme is carried throughout the gospel of Matthew. Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope of the people of Israel, as expressed through the prophets, who were speaking for God. Jesus is thus the fulfillment of the covenant of God with Israel.
The gospel of Matthew was written for a Christian community that had a more Jewish understanding of Jesus than did the Gentile and Greek-speaking Jewish Christians for whom Luke wrote his account. It is in Matthew's gospel that Jesus gives the famous Sermon on the Mount, in which he says he has come to fulfil the law not to abolish it. This gospel was a powerful argument in the hands of Jewish Christians against the growing power of the Gentile churches.
Yet, the author of the gospel extends the hope of Israel beyond any narrow interpretation of ancient prophecy by masterfully telling the story of the three wise men. They represent the non-Jewish world of wisdom, which recognizes the sovereignty of Jesus and comes to pay him homage. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh carry symbolic meaning for his readers. Gold reflects the kingship of Jesus. Frankincense, which was used in worship in the temple in Jerusalem, symbolizes his priestly role. And myrrh, because it was used in embalming and for burial, points to his crucifixion and resurrection to a heavenly throne.
If Luke's birth story is about women and shepherds, Matthew's story is about men and kings. (Later in the life of the church the wise men are called "kings" because of a verse in Psalm 72 that refers to kings bringing gifts to the king of the Israelites.) The three wise men come looking for the one born to be king of the Jews. They come to the ruler of Judea, bringing gifts fit for a king. And this ruler massacres the young boys of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the threat to his throne. In contrast to the birth story in the gospel of Luke, the story in the gospel of Matthew is not about poverty and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is about the coming of a new ruler into the world.
In the East, which followed the older Alexandrian calendar rather than the Julian calendar introduced in the Roman Empire in 46 BCE, the 6th of January was the winter solstice. In the third century eastern churches began to celebrate Epiphany on this day. In fact, Epiphany was celebrated in the life of the church before Christmas became a feast day. Originally Epiphany commemorated four manifestations of Jesus: his appearance to the shepherds and to the three wise men, his baptism in the Jordan, and the first miracle at Cana where he changed water into wine.
In the West, Epiphany on January 6th became part of the Julian calendar in the fourth century, although in Jerusalem the Feast of the Nativity continued to be celebrated on January 6th until 549, a practice still followed in the 20th century in the Armenian Church. As the two birth stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew were both included in the liturgical calendar, they became one story in the minds of most Christians.
In the Middle Ages apocryphal religious books thought to have been written at the time of the early church, elaborated the birth and infancy stories in the Bible. These accounts were very popular and circulated in Arabic and Armenian as well as in Latin. The three wise men became personalities: Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. An ox was added to the manger scene, because of two texts discovered in the Old Testament. Isaiah 1:3 reads "The ox knows his owner, and the ass his Master's crib." And Habbakuk 3:2 (in the Septuagint version) reads: "Between two beasts are you known." Thus an ox and an ass came to represent the expected Messiah.
In Europe the Christmas liturgical plays often included representations of the flight into Egypt related in the birth story in Matthew's gospel. And in the art of this period there are many paintings of angels guiding Joseph, with his four sons (understood to be from a previous marriage) leading an ox, as Mary rides on an ass with Jesus in her arms.
A procession of the prophets, each one foretelling with a passage from Scripture the birth of the Messiah, became a standard part in the Middle Ages of the "Christ mass" or "Christmas" liturgical play. A Feast of the Ass was added to the season to celebrate the animal who carried Mary to Bethlehem and then to safety into Egypt. But the dramatic enactment of these journeys became so raucous and ribald that in the 13th century this feast was forbidden by church authorities.
What might the birth story in Matthew's gospel mean for us today? I suggest, first, that it emphasizes God. If the story in Luke stresses the humanity of Jesus, the story of the three wise men reminds us of the sovereignty of God. Jesus is the presence of God on earth, and he returns to heaven to rule. The story tells us that God's mysterious plan is being worked out through history.
Second, this story reminds us that human rulers are subject to God. The star created by God summons the three wise men. Herod is foiled in his attempt to destroy Jesus, who will be king. Furthermore, Matthew's gospel relates the story of the ministry of Jesus, his death as the king of the Jews, his resurrection as the king of kings, and his commissioning of the disciples for a ministry to the whole world.
Third, the birth story in the gospel of Matthew tells us that the promises of God will be fulfilled. The story calls us to faith by affirming that God is faithful. The covenant that God established with Israel has been renewed through Jesus. If we have faith in him, and follow his commandments, then God will keep faith with us. Prophecy and promise will be fulfilled.
Even as the wise men and Jesus escaped from the wrath of Herod, so will we come to new life through faith. No matter how dark the future, no matter how unjust the suffering, no matter how close we are to death, there is hope.