Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Juda in the days of king Herod. It is better to read here in the Greek in Bethlehem-Juda. Juda means the tribe of Judah, to which, after the schism of the ten tribes, who made a king of their own, Jeroboam, the tribe of Benjamin adhered. And these two formed the kingdom of Judah. S. Matthew adds the word Judah to distinguish the town from another Bethlehem, in the tribe of Zebulon, in Galilee. (See Joshua 19:15) So S. Jerome.
This was Herod I., the son of Antipater, surnamed the Great, and of Ascalon, and an Iduman by race, whom the Roman Senate, on the recommendation of Antony, created the first king of Juda, after its conquest. (See Josephus, lib14, Ant. c18.)
Matthew makes mention of Herod, to intimate that the sceptre was now transferred from Judah to an alien, for such was Herod, and therefore that Messiah or Christ was now come. For the patriarch Jacob had foretold that this should be the sign of His advent. ( Genesis 49:10.) So S. Chrysostom, and Theophylact. Herod, being aware of this prophecy, applied the oracle to himself in order to strengthen his kingdom. He wished to be accounted the Messiah; and therefore he built a most magnificent temple for the Jews, and dedicated it on the anniversary of the day when he commenced his reign. (See Josephus, lib15, Ant. c14, and lib20, c8.)
Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist, was the son of this Herod the Great. He also it was who clothed our Lord in His Passion with a white robe, and mocked Him. And the grandson of Herod the Great, by his son Aristobulus, was Herod Agrippa, who killed James the brother of John, and who was smitten by an angel and died. And the son of this Agrippa was Herod Agrippa the younger, before whom Paul the prisoner pleaded. ( Acts 25:23, &C.)
Salianus, Scaliger, and others, think that Christ was born in the thirty-sixth, or last year but one, of Herod"s reign. For he reigned thirty-six years. (See on ver16.) But Baronius thinks that Christ was born in the twentieth year of Herod, Abul. in the thirtieth, Bede in the thirty-first, Eusebius in the thirty-second, Sulpitius Severus in the thirty-third, Torinellus in the thirty-fourth, and others give other dates, so that in a matter of such uncertainty nothing can be exactly determined.
Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? Wise men, Gr. Magi, a common word among the Persians, whence the Persian translation of S. Matthew has here Magusan, Magi, or wise men, or astrologers, or philosophers. The word seems to be derived from the Hebrew as Genebrard, on Ps. i., thinks, from the root haga to meditate, whence Magim, those who meditate. "For meditation is the key of wisdom," as Ptolemy says in the procemium of Almagestus. Hence those who are given to meditation either are, or else become, wise. The Chaldees, following the Hebrews, were accustomed to call their philosophers Magi, according to S. Jerome in Dan. c2. Hence the Arabians, Syrians, Persians, Ethiopians, and other Orientals, whose languages are either derived from, or akin to Hebrew, call their wise men and astrologers, Magi, according to Pliny, lib25. C2, and Tertull., contra Judos.
Came to Jerusalem1. Because they thought that the King of the Jews must be sought for in the royal city; so S. Leo says2. Because the chief priests, and scribes, and doctors of the law, were at Jerusalem, who, from the prophetic oracles, would be likely to know where and when Christ should be born, as in fact they did inform the wise men that He should be born at Bethlehem. For prudently the Magi, although they had the star, wished to consult also the living interpreters of God"s will. And thus it was that the star for a time withdrew itself, as though to compel the wise men to approach the Scribes. For it is God"s will that men should be taught by men, and by doctors appointed by Himself, the way of salvation.
From the east, Gr. α̉πό α̉νατολών, i.e., from eastern parts, as though these Magi came from several regions or provinces of the east.
You ask from what country the Magi came?
1. Clemens Alex., S. Chrysostom, Cyril Alex., and S. Leo, cited by Baronius, think that they came from Persia. But the distance would seem too great. For Persia is300 leagues from Juda, which the Magi would scarcely traverse in thirteen days. It is true that with dromedaries, which can travel forty leagues in a day, the journey might be accomplished post-haste in that time; but those kings, with their luxuries and their litters, were not travellers post-haste, and could not perform the distance in any such time. And the more common opinion of the Fathers and Doctors is that the Magi came to Bethlehem on the thirteenth day from the first appearance of the star and the birth of Christ, and there adored Him, and that this is the force of the word lo! Also because they found Christ still remaining with His parents, among strangers at Bethlehem, and they, a little after, returned with Christ to their own city, Nazareth. This is the opinion of S. Augustine, Serm. I, 2, 3, de Epiphan., and S. Leo, de eadem. Whence also the Church commemorates this mystery on the thirteenth day after Christmas.
2. Others with more probability think that the Magi were Chaldans, both because the Chaldans were addicted to astrology; and these Magi recognized Christ by the teaching of a star, and because they themselves were followers of Abraham, who was called by God out of Chalda into Juda. So think S. Jerome, Chalcidius the Platonic, and Jansenius.
3. Abul. (in Numb. c24), and the Jesuit Sebast. Barradi, think that the Magi were Mesopotamians, because Balaam, who predicted this star was from thence.
4. Navarrus (Tractat. de Orat. c21) asserts that he received from Jerome Osorius, Bishop of Algarbii, and a celebrated writer, that it is found in the very ancient records of Calecut, that the king of Calecut was one of the Magi, or certainly a chief associate (socium) of the three wise men. It is credible that this may have afterwards been the case when the Magi preached with S. Thomas the Apostle, in that place. See Osorius, lib. I, on the actions of Emmanuel, king of Portugal, where he asserts from Indian traditions that the king of Cranganore, which is not very far from Calecut, was one of the Magi: for that the two other Magi, the Persian, and the Caramanian, as they were hastening to Christ with the star for their guide, associated with themselves this Indian king; and that hence he was called Chereperimale, or one of three. He adds that he was nearly black, and like an Ethiopian. Maffei has a similar account, lib2, Hist. Ind., where he calls this prince Pirimal, and asserts that he was king of Calanum, and that the star was his guide to Christ by the admonition of the Indian Sibyl.
5. And most probably, these Magi were eastern Arabians. Whence Tacitus (lib5, Histor.) says that Juda was bounded by Arabia on the east.
This is proved, 1. Because it was the opinion of S. Justin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Epiphanius, and others, whom Baronius cites2. Because this answers best to the prophecy of Isaiah, who foretells ( Isaiah 60:6) that the Sabeans, Midian, and Ephah, who are all Arabians, should come to Christ with presents. And it would appear that the Church has thus understood Isaiah"s prophecy, since she so frequently recites it in the office for the Epiphany. This is likewise plainly in accordance with the Psalmist: "The kings of Tharsis and of the islands shall offer presents, the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts." ( Psalm 72:10.) 3. Because Arabia is nearer to Juda than Chalda, India, Persia, &c4. Because the Queen of Sheba was a type of these kings. And she came with similar presents from Arabia to Solomon, a type of Christ. And although this queen be said to have come from Ethiopia, yet this Ethiopia was not Abyssinia, but a part of Arabia. For she came from eastern, not western Ethiopia, as S. Anselm says. Arabia includes the Red Sea and the adjacent regions, especially the neighbouring part of eastern Ethiopia. So the Madianites are called Ethiopians because of their black, or dark, colour. Whence Moses wife is called an Ethiopian woman. ( Numbers 12:1) Also the Red Sea is called the Arabian, not the Ethiopian Gulf, because Arabia stretches itself even beyond it. Hence again it is probable that one or more of the Magi were black, both because this is the universal opinion, as painters thus depict the Adoration of the Wise Men, and because the Queen of Sheba is said to come from Ethiopia: "Before him the Ethiopians shall fall down." ( Psalm 72:9, Vulg.) And the Magi are called "kings of Tharsis, i.e., of the Red Sea." 5. It is plain, from the gifts which the Magi offered to Christ: Arabia abounds in gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is why it is called Felix, the Happy. "Nowhere is frankincense," says Pliny, "except in Arabia." And Virgil, "The frankincense tree belongs to the Sabeans alone;" and (2Geor.), "India sends ivory, the unwarlike Sabeans their frankincense." In this Arabia there is also abundance of myrrh and spices, so that they use none other than such wood for kindling fires. (Pliny, lib12, C17.) In the same country there is so great a quantity of gold that their furniture is resplendent with it; and in Saba of Ethiopia even the prisoners" chains are made of it. (See Mela, lib3, c10.) 6. Because the prophecy of Balaam, concerning the star of these wise men, was uttered in the land of Moab, which was a part of Arabia. See S. Jerome, in Locis Hebraicis. See also Pineda, lib5, de rebus Salomonis, who shows that the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon, and the three Magi to Christ, from Saba, in Arabia Felix, a district inhabited by the Homeritae, amongst whom the Christian religion afterwards marvellously flourished under Ely Gaan, who received it from the kings, his ancestors, who were probably these Magi.
The common opinion of the faithful is that these Magi were kings, that is, petty kings, or princes. And this belief, let Calvin laugh as he may, is fully handed down by SS. Cyprian, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, Hilary, by Tertullian, Isidore, Bede, Idacius, who are all cited by Maldonatus and Baronius. S. Matthew, however, does not call them kings, but Magi, because it was the part of these last to recognize Christ by the star. Hence also in Ps. lxxi., they are called "kings of Tharsis," and "kings of the Arabians and of Saba." Again, that they were three in number, from the three species of gifts which they offered—gold, frankincense, and myrrh,—is taught by Augustine, Serm29 & 33, de Tempore. The pious tradition of the faithful favours the same opinion. And the office of the Church for the Epiphany implies it.
The author of the imperfect work upon S. Matthew in S. Chrysostom asserts that after the resurrection of Christ, S. Thomas the Apostle came to the country of these Magi, and baptized them, and associated them with him in preaching the Gospel.
Venerable Bede, to whom we may well give credit, in his Collectanea, not far from the beginning, names and describes them as follows:—The first is said to have been called Melchior, an old man, grey-headed, with flowing beard and locks; he presented gold to the Lord the King. The second was Gaspar, young, beardless, and ruddy; he with frankincense, as an oblation worthy of God, honoured God. The third was Fuscus: he had a full beard, and by means of myrrh signified that the Son of Man should die.
Lastly, some say that these Magi, as they preached Christ, were slain by the idolaters, and gained the crown of martyrdom; and offered themselves, as it were, an holocaust of gold and frankincense and myrrh to Christ. Amongst these, L. Dexter, in his Chronicle, under A.D70, says: "In Arabia Felix, in the city of Sessania, took place the martyrdom of the three Royal Magi, Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior." From Sessania their sacred remains were translated to Constantinople, from thence to Milan, and from Milan to Cologne, where they still remain, and are greatly venerated, and where I myself have often honoured them.
Who is born King of the Jews. Observe here the faith and greatness of soul of the Magi, who in a royal city seek another King rather than the reigning monarch; nor fear the wrath and power of Herod, because they trusted in God.
The King of the Jews, put antonomastically for Messiah, or Christ. Wherefore when Herod heard this question, he gathered the Scribes together, and asked them where Christ should be born? For the star was the index of Christ; whence it is subjoined, "For we have seen His star." This is what is meant—"The King of the Jews, yea, of heaven, has been born; for a star of the heavens has made Him known to us. It has called us: it has invited all to visit Him, to honour and adore Him. For in this new star which has been put forth in heaven, heaven manifests her admiration of so great a King, even the Word incarnate." When Christ is born, the heaven is astonished, the angels are amazed, and, wondering at the love of God for man, they sing with jubilation, "Glory to God in the highest," that so they may arouse senseless man to wonder at and venerate so great condescension. So from a like cause, at the passion of Christ, the sun and the moon were darkened, the earth quaked, rocks were rent, graves were opened, to show that their God was dying, and to manifest their sympathy. This is what Haggai foretold (ii7)—"Yet a little while, and I will move the heaven and the earth: and the desire of all nations shall come." At this also Habakkuk was amazed when he said (iii2), "I considered thy works, and was afraid. In the midst of the two living creatures thou shalt be known" (LXX)—that is to say, in the manger, by the shepherds and the Magi. Wherefore Francis Mayro, in a sermon on the Nativity, teaches that the incarnation of the Word was a greater and more stupendous work of God than the creation of the world. For man is more distant from God than he is from nothing. For man is finite, God is infinite, and, by the incarnation, God is united to man; but, in creation, man is united to nothing—that is, to a body created out of nothing.
Lastly, from this star, that impostor who, a little after Christ, under the Emperor Adrian, feigned himself to be Messiah, gave himself a name. He excited the Jews to rebel against the Romans, and became their leader, calling himself Barchochebas, i.e., the Son of the Star, saying "that he, for their salvation, had glided down from heaven, as a great star, to bring the help of light to diseased mortals, who were condemned to long darkness." Thus Eusebius, Hist46. But this star soon set, for he and all his followers were cut off by the Romans.
Appropriately did a star lead the three royal Magi to Christ, the King of kings, for a star has the appearance of a kingly crown, with its resplendent rays; and therefore a star is an emblem of a king and a kingdom. Whence God promises to Abraham ( Genesis 15:5), saying, "Look up to heaven, and number the stars, if thou canst. And he said to him: so shall thy seed be." Here, amongst other things, He designated the kings of Israel and Judah, who should spring from Abraham, but especially Christ the King. Hence, unfolding the same thing, God says to Abraham explicitly, "Kings shall come out of thee." ( Genesis 17:6.) Wherefore S. Fulgentius (Serm. on the Epiph5) says—"Who is that King of the Jews? At once poor and rich, lowly and exalted, who is carried as a babe, and worshipped as a God: a babe in a manger, incomprehensible in heaven, sordid in rags, priceless among the stars."
Hence has been taken that ancient military order of the kings and princes of France, who bore the figure of a star on their vestments, with this motto—"The stars show the way to the kings." This order was afterwards changed, by Louis XI. of France, into the Order of S. Michael. The Order of the Star was first instituted by Robert of France, about A.D1022 (in honour of the Blessed Virgin, to whom that monarch was greatly devoted), because she is the very Star of the sea, imploring that she, like a guiding-star, might be the leader of his kingdom, and especially of the nobles. Wherefore he elected thirty knights of the chief nobility of France to be of this Order, and gave to each a golden collar, with a star pendant on the breast. (See the "Annals of Paris," by Jacob Broneius.)
For we have seen his star—namely, of the King of the Jews, i.e., Christ, or the Messiah, newly born. From hence it would appear that this star extended its rays with greater length and brightness in the direction of Judæa, in the same manner that comets extend their tails towards such and such a country; so that the Magi might understand that they were to go in the direction of Judæa, where Messiah was to be born. This seems to be the force of the word for in this place. Wisely does S. Gregory say (Hom10)—"All the elements testified that their Creator was come. The heavens acknowledged Him to be God, and so they sent the star. The sea knew Him, for it suffered Him to walk upon it. The earth knew Him, for, when He died, it trembled. The sun knew Him, for he hid his rays. The rocks and stones knew Him, for they were rent asunder. Hell knew Him, for it gave up the dead that were in it. And yet Him, whom all the senseless elements felt to be the Lord, the hearts of the unbelieving Jews even yet acknowledge not by any means to be God, and, harder than the flint-stones, they will not be broken by repentance."
You will ask how the Magi, when they saw the star, knew by it that Christ was born?
In the first place, the Priscillianists, as S. Gregory (Hom10) testifies, said that this star was the Fate of Christ; that as fate determines things future, so this star signified and determined Christ. But this opinion S. Gregory rightly refutes, saying, "It was not the Child who hasted to the star, but the star to the Child. So may it be said, that the star was not the fate of the Child, but the fate of the star was the Child who appeared." S. Augustine also (lib5, de Civitat. Dei, c1, &c.) confutes the astrologers, who say that the stars assign their fates to every one.
[There follows here a refutation of astrological views, which is not translated, as unnecessary in the present age.—Trans.]
A second opinion is that of the Imperfect Author. This star, he says, was distinguished by the figure of a boy bearing a cross, because the light of faith manifested the Incarnation and Cross of Christ. But this is said without foundation. It is not related in any history, except that of the Sethiani, of whom presently.
I say, therefore, that the Magi knew Christ was born by the token of a star1. Because Balaam had prophesied of it ( Numbers 24:17), "A Star shall rise out of Jacob." But the Magi were the posterity, or successors of Balaam. The meaning therefore of "Where is he who is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star," is, we seek Him whom we all have hitherto expected to be designated by a star; and now, since we have seen the star, we believe that He has been born. There is, moreover, this oracle of the Erythran Sibyl extant (lib8, Sibyl. orac.): "The Magi worshipped the Star, recent and divine; and when they followed the commands of God, an infant was shown to them in a manger."
That the Magi knew that this star was the harbinger of Christ from Balaam and the Sibyl, is the opinion of S. Basil, S. Jerome, Origen, S. Leo, Eusebius, Prosper, S. Cyprian, Procopius, and others, whom I have cited on Numbers 24:17. Whence Suetonius, in Vespas., and Cicero, lib2, de Divinat., and Orosius, lib6, c6, say that it was then a general belief that a King would come forth from Juda who would have universal dominion. This the heathen falsely applied to Vespasian. Chalcidius, who was a heathen and Platonic philosopher, commenting upon the Timus of Plato, thus writes: "There is another very sacred and venerable history," meaning the Gospel of S. Matthew, "which tells of the rising of a certain star, not one denouncing disease and death, but declaring the descent of a God to be worshipped, for the sake of converse with man and mortal concerns. When certain wise Chaldans, in a journey by night, had seen this star, and had well considered the circumstance, they are said to have searched for the God newly born, and, when they had found the august Child, they worshipped Him, and presented gifts suitable for so great a Deity." The author of the Imperfect Homily, upon this passage of S. Matthew, adds that the successors of Balaam, after his prophecy concerning the star, deputed some persons, in each generation, to watch the heavens, who might observe the rising of this star, on the mountain which is called Victorialis; and at length, when these Magi were watching for its appearance, "it came," he says, "upon that mountain Victorialis, descending, as it were, in the form of a little child, and upon him the likeness of a cross. And it spoke with them and taught them, and told them to go into Juda. And as they went, the star went before them for the space of two years. And they wanted neither food nor drink. But the rest of all the things which were done by them is compendiously related in the Gospel." These things, however, are of doubtful credit, and are taken from the apocryphal books of the Sethiani, as the writer acknowledges.
2. More probably, they knew by a divine instinct and revelation; for the Magi were endowed with a hidden celestial afflatus. "This they heard," says S. Augustine (Serm2de Epiph.), "telling them in the language of heaven, as it were, that Christ was born in Judaea. Thus they followed the star on to Bethlehem and the cradle of Christ." For, as S. Leo says (Serm4de Epiph.), "God, who manifested the sign of the star, gave understanding to those who beheld it: for He made it to be understood and inquired after, and, being sought after, He presented Himself to be found."
The brightness and majesty of the star were so great that the Magi understood that something divine was portended, even that God, as the Holy Spirit suggested to them, had become incarnate.
In fine, the Divine countenance of the Child Christ shed forth such a ray of heavenly light as illuminated the eyes, but still more the minds, of the Magi, so that they perceived that that Infant was not a mere man, but true God; for, as S. Jerome says, on the ninth chapter of Matthew, "The splendour and the majesty of the hidden Divinity, which shone even in His human face, were able at the first glance to attract those who beheld Him."
You will ask, secondly, of what kind, and how great was this star? Was it of the same nature as the rest of the stars, or was it peculiar and diverse from others? First, the writer concerning the marvels of Scripture (lib3. c40, as extant in tom3of S. Augustine"s Works), thinks that this star was the Holy Ghost, who, like unto a dove, descended upon Christ, and, by means of a star, guided the Magi2. Origen, Theophylact, S. Chrysostom, and Maldonatus think that this star was an angel, because, indeed, an angel was the mover, and, as it were, the charioteer of the star3. Others think that it was a real and new star, similar to the one which appeared in the Constellation of Cassiopeia, A.D15724. Others think that it was a comet. But I reply that it was a new and unknown star, entirely different from other stars, and superior to them in nine prerogatives, and, as one may say, portents. It was formed by the angels for this purpose, that it might lead the Magi to admire it, that they might feel assured that it presaged something new and divine.
1. This star surpassed all others as to its creation or production. For they were produced in the fourth day of the Creation, but this was produced upon the very night of Christ"s nativity. It was therefore a new star, and was never seen either before or after this time. So S. Augustine, lib2, contra Faustum, c5.
2. In its material: for in other stars this is celestial, but in this it was aerial. For the angels framed it of condensed air, and infused brightness into it.
3. In place: for other stars are in the firmament; this was in the atmosphere. It went before the Magi in their journey from Arabia to Juda.
4. In motion: other stars move in circles; but this went straight forward. For it moved in a direct line from east to west.
5. In time: other stars only shine by night; for the sun"s light obscures them during the day. But this was as bright by day, during the shining of the sun, as it was by night.
6. In duration: for other stars always shine; this was temporary, for it continued only during the period of the wise men"s journey, and afterwards vanished.
7. In size: for the other stars are greater than the earth and the moon, but this was less than either. This, however, appeared greater because it was nearer the earth; just as the moon appears larger than the fixed stars, because it is nearer to us, although it is in reality far less.
8. In being inconstant: for this star sometimes hid itself, as at Jerusalem; at other times it was visible, and a guide of their journey. "When the Magi went forward, it went forward; when they rested, it rested. At length it stood over the house where the Child was. And then, as though its work were accomplished in Christ"s Epiphany, it vanished. The other stars have no such property.
9. In splendour: in which it surpassed all the other stars. Whence S. Ignatius, who lived a little after Christ, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, writes thus: "The star shone so as to surpass in brightness all that were before it. For its light was indescribable; and struck with amazement all who beheld it. For all the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were a kind of chorus of audience for that star, for it surpassed them all in splendour." Prudentius in his hymn for the Epiphany says, "That star which surpasses the sun"s orb in beauty and radiance." S. Chrysostom says the same thing. Whence S. Leo (Serm1de Epiph.) says, "A new star appeared in the eastern parts to the three Magi. It was brighter and more beautiful than all the other stars. It attracted to it the eye and the mind of those who beheld it, so that it was immediately perceived that this strange sight was not without a purpose."
This star was a new meteor formed by the angels from the atmosphere, and filled with an immense light, and moved by an angel, like the pillar of fire and cloud, which guided the Hebrews through the desert to the promised land. So S. Chrysostom, Fulgentius, Basil, and others. Indeed, that pillar was a type of this star. Truly does S. Chrysostom say (Hom16 ex veriis in Matth. loc.) "Thou, O star, by thy advent calledst the Magi from the east, and sentest them back to preach the gospel in their own land."
Furthermore, in the books passing under the name of Seth, the son of Adam, there are various things related of the Magi, and of the star in the figure of a child carrying a cross, &c., which seem to have been fabricated by the Sethianist heretics. (See Epiphanius, Hres26 & 39.)
Also Gregory of Tours, says Haymo, relates, that this star fell into a well, where it may be even now seen, but only by virgins; and that once three men came to behold it, and that only one of them, who was a virgin, could see it. But such things, says S. Anselm, are fables and trifles.
Allegorically, Christ is "the bright and morning star." ( Revelation 22:16.) Whence S. Ambrose saith, "Christ is the star: for a Star shall rise out of Jacob, and a man come forth of Israel." (Vulg.) In fine, where Christ is, there is the star. For He is the bright and morning star: therefore doth He make Himself known by His own light.
Again, the star of the sea, that is, of this storm-tossed world, who shows us thereby the way, and goes before us to the harbour of safety, is the Blessed Virgin, whence her name Mary. The Hebrew Mariam means teacher, or mistress, or guide of the sea. "Behold the star, invoke Mary," says S. Bernard. Hence, also, the Church invokes her, saying, "Hail, star of the sea, bounteous Mother of God."
Tropologically, the star is, 1. The faith of a believer2. Prudence3. Precepts4. Evangelical counsels, especially obedience to a superior5. Holy inspirations infused into the mind by God, whereby He calls the soul to some action, in a more perfect state, as, for example, virginity, or martyrdom. God, let us say, calls thee to sanctity and heroic virtue, to a state of perfection; He shows thee a star to go before thee on the road to heaven. Gaze then upon it, follow it, lest this star of a divine vocation, being seen of thee, be despised, and in the day of judgment accuse and condemn thee before God. "There is nothing, therefore, too difficult for the humble," says S. Leo (Serm5 de Epiph.), "nothing too rugged for the meek, and all things can be accomplished, when grace furnishes her assistance, and obedience lightens the command."
Hear S. Gregory (Hom39 in Evang.): "Behold God calls us by Himself, by the angels, by fathers, by prophets, by apostles, by pastors. He calls us also by our own selves, by miracles, very often by chastisements. He calls us by worldly prosperity, and sometimes by adversity. Let no one despise the call, lest the time should ever come, when they will wish to answer and not be able."
Anagogically, doctors and whoever instruct many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. ( Daniel 12:3; and Revelation 2:28.) Wherefore S. Leo says, "Whosoever shall live a godly life in the Church, and shall seek those things which are above, not which are upon the earth, is like a heavenly luminary. And whilst he himself preserves the brightness of a holy conversation, he, like a star, shows to many the way of the Lord. In such a course ye all ought, well-beloved, to profit one another, that in the kingdom of God—at which we arrive by means of a right faith and good works—ye may shine as the children of the light."
Lastly, the star invites and calls us to heaven, that, by means of a heavenly life, we may come to the most blessed company of the angels and all the heavenly citizens.
We have seen his star in the east. Some writers refer the words, in the east to we have seen. That is, "We, being in the east, saw the star in the west, shining over Judæa;" so that the Magi knew whither to wend their way. Similarly, the pole-star shows the way to sailors. Others, with more probability, refer in the east to the word star—i.e., "we, in the east, saw the star there with us in the east." But both opinions are tenable. For, first, this star seems to have appeared over Judæa to signify that the King of the Jews was born there, and must there be sought. Hence, in Numbers 24:17, for "shall rise" the Hebrew has darach—i.e., "hath proceeded." "A star proceedeth out of Jacob."
You will ask, Did the star remain stationary in the east, or was it a constant attendant upon the Magi in their journey to Juda? Jansen, Cajetan, and others think that it remained stationary. They attempt to prove this: 1. Because the Magi say, "we have seen His star in the east." And when they departed from Jerusalem, S. Matthew says, "And lo, the star which they had seen in the east." 2. Because Herod, and the Jews, and the rest did not, as it would seem, behold the star. For had they done so, some surely would have followed it, and have come with the Magi to Christ3. Because the Magi knew from Balaam"s prophecy that the star portended that the King of the Jews was now born. And as they knew the way to Juda, they did not require the star to guide them.
On the other hand, SS. Chrysostom and Leo, Theophylact, S. Thomas, Lyra, Suarez, Maldonatus, and Chrysologus (Serm156) are of opinion that the star did accompany the Magi as far as Juda. As Chrysologus says (loc. cit.), "When they walked, the star went on; when they sat down, it stayed; when they slept, it kept vigil over them." This is the common opinion of believers; whence the Church sings in her hymn, "The Magi went on following the star which they had seen, which went before them."
So, therefore, when the Magi say, We have seen has star in the east, they are speaking only of their beginning to see the star. We have seen, meaning "We first saw His star when we were in the east; and, being called by the sight of it, we are come, with that star for our guide, having followed it as it went before us until we came to Jerusalem." And because the star disappeared at Jerusalem, they then went to Herod and the Scribes, and asked them where Christ was born.
Both opinions are probable and worthy of examination, and may perhaps be reconciled one with the other, by supposing that the star which shone in the east was of exceeding brightness, as S. Ignatius testifies, at its first appearance, when it attracted the eyes of the Magi, and to which they referred when they said "we have seen His star in the east;" but that afterwards, when it went with them in their journey, it was covered with a cloud, and shone less brightly, so that it was visible to scarcely any save the Magi; lest if other men had seen it in its utmost brilliancy, and had accompanied them in a great band to Jerusalem, they might have stirred up Herod and the Jews against Christ to destroy Him. For it was plainly fitting that the star which called forth the Magi should show them the way to Christ, who was afar off and hidden. In like manner, the pillar of fire and cloud which was the leader of the camp of the Hebrews shone before them like fire by night, but by day was covered with a cloud, as I have shown in my commentary on Exodus 13and Numbers 9.
But that some others besides the Magi saw the star is probable. For since the star was a large one, bright and visible to them, why not to others? For God willed Christ to be made known to all the world. Still, few or none followed the star with the Magi, both because they understood not the mystery, and because they were hindered by worldly cares. Hence we learn how necessary is powerful and efficacious grace for seeking Christ. Of this He speaks (S. John 6:44): "No man can come unto me, except my Father draw him." Thus in the passion of Christ, the eclipse of the sun was seen at Athens by S. Dionysius, the Areopagite; and this was why he was converted by S. Paul when he learnt from him the cause of the eclipse, because, namely, it was at that very day and hour that Christ was crucified.
Suarez adds, that the star only shone by day in places near the Magi, but was at a loftier elevation by night, and was then less conspicuous. So says Nicephorus, H. E113.
Lastly, the Magi were appropriately called by a star, because they were astronomers. Hence they knew that this star was not a common one, but a prodigy, and portended some divine event. Thus they understood that the Maker and Lord of the stars, to whom all the stars are obedient, was born.
Hence the Church celebrates with so great solemnity the Feast of the Epiphany, in which the Magi were called to adore Christ, because in them and by them was begun the calling and salvation of the Gentiles. Wherefore S. Leo (Serm2de Epiph.) says—"Let us, brethren beloved, recognize in the Magi, who worshipped Christ, the first-fruits of our vocation and faith, and with exulting minds let us celebrate the beginnings of blessed hope. From this time forth we began to enter into our eternal inheritance." And S. Augustine (Serm2de Epiph.) says—"This day, on which we keep the anniversary of our festival, first shone upon the Magi. They were the first-fruits of the Gentiles, and we are the people of the Gentiles. To us hath the tongue of Apostles announced it; but to them, the star, as though the tongue of heaven. And the same Apostles, as though they were other heavens, have declared unto us the glory of God."
When king Herod heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod was troubled, because he feared that he would lose the kingdom of the Jews, now that Messiah, their true and legitimate Prince, was born. "What wonder," says S. Augustine, "that impiety should be troubled at the birth of piety?" (Serm2de Innocent.) Jerusalem was troubled, as well because there were many in it who favoured Herod, as because the Scribes and chief Priests, having leisure only for their own advantage, and being thus in a state of spiritual slumber, had no thought about the coming of Messiah; that now the sceptre was departed from Judah, as Jacob had foretold, Messiah should be born. Wisely does S. Gregory say (Hom10. in Evangel.), "When the King of heaven was born, the earthly king was troubled because, indeed, terrestrial exaltation is confounded when celestial greatness is disclosed." "For," as S. Fulgentius says (Serm1de Epiph.), "This King came, not to fight against and conquer earthly kings, but, by dying, marvellously to subdue them. Not, therefore, was He born to be thy successor, O Herod; but that the world might faithfully believe in Him." "Christ seizes not thy royalty," says S. Leo, "nor would the Lord of the universe be contented with thy petty sceptre. He, whom thou wishest not to be king in Juda, reigns everywhere, and thyself wouldst reign more prosperously if thou wouldst be subject to His sway."
And Herod, as we may see in Josephus, cut off all the members of the royal house of Judah, lest there should be any rival to his sovereignty.
And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. He calls the learned doctors of the law, the Scribes, who occupied themselves in transcribing, reading, and expounding the sacred Scriptures. They are sometimes called lawyers; such a one was Ezra.
But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet: And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel.
I have explained this prophecy in my Commentary upon Micah v., so that I shall not here repeat it. Only let us observe three discrepancies between S. Matthew and Micah. The first is that S. Matthew, in speaking of Bethlehem, omits the name Ephratah. The explanation is that Bethlehem had two names. It was called by its founders Bethlehem and Ephratah, because Ephratah was the father of Bethlehem. (See 1 Chronicles 4:4); and Ephratah in Hebrew signifies fruitful, or fruit-bearing. Bethlehem has a similar meaning, being house of bread. The literal reason why Christ would be born at Bethlehem was that He might be accounted David"s Son, who was promised to him, who was himself born in Bethlehem. The moral reason was to teach us humility, to be content with a lowly parentage, a lowly country, a humble cottage. Whence S. Leo (Serm. I de Epiph.) says—"He who took the form of a servant chose Bethlehem for His birthplace, that in that obscure place He might hide His glory, but Jerusalem for His passion, that He might the more make known abroad the shame of the Cross." He taught us, therefore, to cover our glory, to uncover our shame. He here taught us that heavenly glory, which is a paradox to the world, is, that "the way to glory is flight from glory." Christ, who is a star—i.e., a light and guide to glory and blessedness—hid Himself, and His Godhead and His dignity of Messiah, by abiding in the manger of Bethlehem. And therefore God the Father displays Him to the whole world, and glorifies Him by means of a star shining out of heaven. If, therefore, thou seekest true glory, shun fame, court ignominy; for if thou desirest glory, thou shalt lose it; but if thou despisest it, then, even against thy will, thou shalt be had in honour. For this paradox is most true—"Glory follows him that shuns it, flees from him that pursues it, as a shadow the body." "Humility goeth before glory." ( Proverbs 15:33.) God exalteth the lowly, and humbleth the proud. Whence "Christ emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross: for which cause God also hath exalted Him, and given Him a name, which is above all names." ( Philippians 2:7.)
2. The second discrepancy is, that for, thou art not the least, as S. Matthew has it, Micah has, thou art a little one (parvulus, Vulg.)—i.e., art the least, or very little. The explanation is that, in Micah, an adversative particle is implied from the context, as in Psalm 117:141, Psalm 117:157, meaning "Very little art thou, O Bethlehem, if I look at thy walls, thy citizens, thy buildings, thy fame; but yet very far art thou from being little, if I consider the princes that have come from thee, and that have been and shall be born in thee. For in thee was born King David, and of thee shall be born Christ, David"s antitype." Some read the words in Micah interrogatively—Art thou very small? That is, Thou art by no means the least, but, by reason of Christ, thou shalt become very great and famous.
3. Instead of among the princes, Micah has, among the thousands. The explanation is, that the Hebrew aleph denotes both a thousand and a prince. But either translation in this place comes to the same thing; for, in the princes means among the princes—i.e., the cities, or even the inhabitants of Judah; this is, from the great number of princely men who have, or shall come forth from thee. In the thousands. This is the same as among the cities, which contain many thousands of people; and therefore they are princes, and have their own chiefs, or princes. For the people of Israel was divided by Moses into chiliads, or so many thousands of families, each of which had their own dukes and princes. (See Exod. xviii25, and Judges vi15.)
Then Herod, privately calling the wise men inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. This he did secretly, in order to avoid popular rumours, murmurs, and tumults. For the people were expecting their Messiah. It was also that he might more thoroughly and reliably find out all the particulars concerning the star. He learned from them when the star appeared, that thus he might know when Christ was born, and so, by killing all the infants who were born about that date, might slay Christ among them. For even already he had determined on the slaughter of the infants, in his own mind. Whence the Arabic version hath it, "He was informed by them concerning the time in which the star appeared to them."
And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore him. This was the fox-like cunning of a fox. He would make the Magi obedient and faithful to himself, by pretending that he wished to worship Christ, when he was taking thought how to kill Him. So Caracalla, in order to reign alone, slew his brother Geta in his mother"s arms, because he was associated with him in the empire; and, to extenuate his crime by piety, he placed his brother among the gods, saying, "Let him be a god, so long as he is not alive." In like manner, Herod saith to the Magi, that he would worship Christ as God, whilst he purposed in his mind to kill Him as a man and a king.
Who having heard the king, went their way; and lo! the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. From hence it would appear that the star which shone in the east with great effulgence, afterwards, when it accompanied the Magi, appeared less brilliant, and, at Jerusalem, was hidden altogether, so as to force the Magi to inquire of the Scribes where Christ should be born, that, by this means, it might be made known even to them that He was born. For Herod and his minions were unworthy of beholding this celestial star; for if they had, they would have used their knowledge to seek out and destroy Christ. But when the Magi departed from Jerusalem, the star again appeared, and shone with its former lustre, to indicate Christ, who is the Light—yea, the Sun of this world—and by its radiance to point out the very spot—that is to say, the stable in which he abode after his birth—so that they might not have to wander in vain, searching for Him from house to house.
And seeing the star—i.e., as brilliant as at first—they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Exceeding great. This is the force of the Hebrew gedolah meod. And they rejoiced so greatly because, by the star being thus lustrous, they knew that they were come nigh to Messiah, and were going to Him in a direct course.
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother. From this passage some are of opinion that, after their enrolment, the wealthier people, who had come to Bethlehem for the purpose, were departed; so that there were now many houses in Bethlehem at liberty for the purpose of hospitality and that Christ had been removed from the stable in which He was born, to some worthier abode of one of the citizens, and was there worshipped by the Magi. For it is said, they entered into the house. So S. Epiphanius, Hres51, Maldonatus, and others.
But the more common opinion is, that the stable in which Christ was born is called the house. For the Hebrews call any place in which people live, a house, as Psalm 103:17. The house—i.e., the nest, of the coot (Ital.) is their leader—namely, of birds and flying creatures. For since the census of the whole people proclaimed by Augustus was being taken during some weeks and months, and since during that period a succession of wealthy people kept arriving for enrolment, and afterwards departing, there was no room for Mary and Joseph, who were poor people, in the hostelry, until the thirteenth day after Christ"s birth. And God ordered this, both to try the constancy of the Magi, and to teach them and others that Christ"s kingdom consists in poverty, humility, and contempt of the world, not in earthly wealth, and pride, and pomps, and palaces. So S. Augustine (Serm1 & 2de Epiph.), Justin, c. Tryph., Chrysostom, &c., and Suarez, which latter adds—"It is plain that Christ, and the Blessed Virgin, as a woman who had lately given birth to a child, remained in the stable until her Purification."
Whence S. Jerome (Epist17 ad Marcellam) says, "Behold in this little hole of the earth, the Maker of the Heavens is born. Here He was wrapped in swathings, here adored by the Magi." And Augustine (Serm. de Epiphan.) says: "He was lying in a manger, yet He led the Magi from the East. He was hidden in a stable, and was acknowledged in Heaven; that being recognized in Heaven, He might be manifested in a stable." You may reconcile these two opinions with each other, if you suppose that in Bethlehem, being a small city, there was only one public hospice for strangers, to which was attached a stable for their horses and other beasts of burden. And so it is said that the Magi entered into the house, or inn, because they went into the stable of the inn. S. Luke"s words are in favour of this, when he says:—"There was no room for them in the inn." This means the common hospice of the place. And they found the Babe lying in the manger, plainly, the only manger belonging to the stable of this hospice.
No mention is made of Joseph upon this occasion, either because he had gone away into the city or the country, to procure food and other necessaries for the Blessed Virgin and Christ. And this was in accordance with the Divine purpose, that the Magi might not suppose him to be the father of Christ, and Christ to be born as other children are. Or if he were present, he was supposed, under the name of Mary"s husband, to be the guardian of Christ, and the keeper of the stable. And S. Matthew signifies by his narrative that the Blessed Virgin and Joseph so conducted themselves in the presence of the Magi, that they understood by God"s inspiration that Christ was born of the Virgin alone by the power of the Holy Ghost, and that Joseph only took care of them. Wherefore it is not doubtful that the Magi conversed with Mary either in Arabic, for she had the gift of tongues, or else in Hebrew, through an interpreter, and learnt from her the manner of the Conception and Birth of Christ. And therefore they adored Him as God and the Son of God, and offered unto Him their threefold gifts, but received from Him far greater spiritual gifts for their souls, even illumination, consolation, and heavenly warmth. In return for their gold, they received the increase of wisdom and burning love; instead of their frankincense, the gift of prayer and devotion; and in exchange for myrrh, zeal for a pure and uncorrupt life.
They fell down and worshipped him. The Arabic has—they fell down in adoration of him. Erasmus thinks that the Magi did not know Christ was God, and therefore did not worship Him with latria, but with civil respect, as the King of the Jews. But the fathers and interpreters teach the contrary—that the Magi, by Divine inspiration, were aware of Christ"s Divinity, and worshipped It with latria, and that for this reason, they offered Him frankincense, which is due to God alone. So S. Irenæus, lib3, c10; S. Leo, Serm. de Epiphan.; and others passim. Whence S. Fulgentius says wisely in his sermon on the Epiphany, "Consider what they offered, and you will know what they believed." Hence this day is called by the Greeks, Epiphany and Theophany—i.e., the appearing of God—because on that day Christ was declared to the Magi to be God, and was worshipped by them as God.
And opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In these things Arabia abounds. (See Ezekiel 27:22, and Pliny, lib12, c14.) It was the ancient custom of the Arabians and other Orientals, not to approach their kings and rulers except with a gift, as it were a tribute due to them. (See Genesis 43:11; 1 Samuel 10:27.) Whence Seneca says (Epist17), "No one may salute the monarchs of Parthia without a present." Moreover, it was God"s law ( Exodus 23.), "Thou shalt not appear empty before me." Lastly, the Queen of Sheba gave precious gifts to Solomon, and received greater from him. Thus it was with the Magi and Christ, who is the true Solomon.
S. Bernard thinks that the Magi offered gold to the Blessed Virgin and Christ to succour their poverty, myrrh to strengthen Christ"s infant limbs, frankincense to prevent the unpleasant odours of the stable. This is a very literal and undignified sense. For the fathers teach, passim, in a far higher way, that illuminated by the Holy Ghost they offered gold to Christ as the most wise King; for wisdom is compared to gold ( Proverbs 8:19); frankincense as to God, and according to His humanity, as the High Priest and Pontiff; Myrrh to Christ as man, about to die and be buried for the redemption of the human race, and the third day to rise again to immortality and eternal glory. For the bodies of the dead are buried with myrrh, that they may remain incorrupt. Myrrh has the property of drying up moisture, and preventing the generation of worms. So S. Leo says, "Frankincense they offer to God, myrrh to man, gold to the king, wisely venerating the Divine and Human Nature joined in one. What they believe in their hearts they show forth by their gifts."
And S. Ambrose says—"Gold for a king, frankincense for God, myrrh for the dead." And S. Gregory (Hom10), "By gold they proclaim a king, by frankincense God, by myrrh a mortal man." "Very beautifully," says S. Jerome, "does the Presbyter Juvencus in one sentence comprehend the mysteries of the gifts, "Gold, frankincense, myrrh, for a king, man, and God.""
Grammarians derive thus (frankincense) from the Greek θυόω, I make an odour, or better, from θύω, I sacrifice, because the first sacrifices of primitive men were fumigations of incense. Hence, "honours of frankincense" meant divine honours. Bede, whose words I have already quoted, asserts that the first of the Magi, whose name was Melchior, gave gold, Gaspar the second, frankincense, Balthasar the third, myrrh.
But others, with more probability, think that each of them offered all these their gifts to Christ, and that each, by these their gifts, attested their own faith in Christ as being a King and God, and about to suffer for man.
Hence the Gloss says: "All this was done by divine inspiration to signify the regal power in Christ by gold, the divine majesty by frankincense, and human mortality by myrrh."
Allegorically, these three gifts signify Christ, who offered Himself to God the Father upon the cross as it were gold, since out of golden love, even love to man, He immolated Himself; as the myrrh of the very bitter passion of His griefs and torments; and as the frankincense of the highest devotion, submission, veneration, and worship. Whence also on the same day of the week on which Christ offered Himself upon the cross the Magi offered their three gifts to Christ. For the tradition is that Christ was born on the Lord"s Day. And if from thence you reckon thirteen days you will come to the Friday of the following week. For the Magi worshipped Him on the thirteenth day after His birth.
Again, Christ offered three gifts to the Holy Trinity, namely, His flesh, soul, and divinity, just as Christians offer to the same Triune God acts of faith, hope, and charity.
Tropologically, in the first place, gold is charity, or love, and wisdom; frankincense is prayer and devotion; myrrh is mortification. Whence S. Gregory says (Hom10), "we offer gold, if we shine by the light of wisdom; frankincense, if we are redolent with fervent prayer; myrrh, if we mortify the vices of the flesh." Hence in Sont5:14, the bride says of Christ, the bridegroom: "His hands are turned and as of gold, full of hyacinths." (Vulg.) "His hands," that is, the works of Christ, and therefore perfect. They are as rings, they may be turned and adapted to every thing good. They are golden, because adorned with charity; full of hyacinths, because they breathe the love of heavenly things. Thus the golden works of charity make golden hands. As many works of charity as thou doest, so many golden rings dost thou put upon thy fingers, yea, verily, upon the fingers of Christ. "Good works," says S. Bernard (de Convers. ad Cleric., c15), "are the seed of eternity and of eternal glory." The very celebrated painter, Zeuxis, used to paint very slowly. Being asked the reason, he replied—"I paint for eternity." Thus also do thou, O believer, work, live, paint, for eternity, that thy works may, through all eternity, shine in heaven before God, the angels, and the blessed. That frankincense denotes prayer, and myrrh mortification, is plain from Song iv6, "I will go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense." And i12, "A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me." And iv14, "The smell of thy garments, as the smell of frankincense," i.e., lifting up prayers and sighs to God. "For," says S. Gregory, "in all his works he prays, whilst he performs all such good works as he is able to do, with the intention of arriving at heavenly things." The same says on Song chap. iii., "The holy soul makes its heart, as it were, a thurible to its God." Mark the saying of S. Gregory Nyssen., "The cause of sin is not to implore the help of God by prayer."
Again, gold is voluntary poverty. For this poverty is most rich, and far more pleasing to God than all the gold in the world. Whence the apostle, "As having nothing and possessing all things." ( 2 Corinthians 6:10.)
Frankincense is obedience, whereby a man offers his own will and intellect, yea, his entire self, to God, as a holocaust of frankincense.
Myrrh is fasting, mortification of the flesh; and what springs from mortification, chastity. Wherefore many think that the three vows of religion are here mystically signified: namely by frankincense, the vow of obedience; by myrrh, the vow of chastity; by gold, the vow of poverty.
Moreover, by these three gifts three kinds of good works are denoted: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, to which all species of virtues may be referred. For almsgiving helps our neighbour; prayer worships and calls upon God; fasting steadies a man within himself. So then, by means of these three, we offer to God whatever good things we have—namely, by almsgiving, our works; by prayer, our souls; by fasting, our bodies.
Anagogically, S. Maximus thinks that by gold is signified man"s redemption, by frankincense the Christian religion, by myrrh the resurrection.
And having received an answer from God (Vulg.: the Greek, χρήομοι, signifies oracles; and the word answer implies, that the Magi in a doubtful matter, in the first place asked light of God, and received an answer from Him), in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country. Cyril, the monk, in his life of the Abbot S. Theodosius, relates that the Magi, when they fled from Herod, avoided high roads and public hospices, and rested in mountains and caves. "Because," he adds, "they had determined not to enter Jerusalem, it was difficult for them to return home any other way, just as we see now is the case, those who come from Bethlehem pass through Jerusalem."
The author of the Imperfect Commentary cries out in admiration of the faith and constancy of the Magi: "O faith! which contradicted not the admonition of the angel, nor said, "We have come so great a journey; as we came we feared not the crowds of so many cities; we were not terrified at the face of that dreadful king, but we stood before him and confidently proclaimed that King who had been born, and we offered unto Him, as God, worthy gifts; and now you bid us conceal ourselves like slaves and take to flight, as having come one way and departing another way." But they continued faithful. And as before they were not afraid to be known, so now they blushed not to depart in secret."
Tropologically, Herod is the devil, the world, and the flesh, and the way to him is pleasure and greed. They, therefore, who pass from him to Christ, walk by the other way of the cross and mortification; and thus it behoves them to return to their own country—that is, the heavenly paradise.
Hear the author of the Imp. Com. (Hom2): "He who comes from the devil to God must never walk by the way by which he went to the devil. Thou wentest by the way of fornication; for the future, walk by the way of chastity. Thou wentest by the way of avarice; walk for the rest of thy life in the way of almsgiving. For if thou goest back by the way by which thou camest, thou shalt come again under the dominion of Herod, and shalt become a traitor to Christ." And S. Gregory saith (Hom10), "Our country is paradise. And when we have known Jesus, we are forbidden to return to it by the way which we came. For we departed from our country by pride, by disobedience, by following things that are seen, by tasting the forbidden fruit. But we must return to it by weeping, by obedience, by despising things that are seen, and by bridling the carnal appetite. We return to our country by another way; because we left the joys of paradise by the way of pleasures, we return to them by the way of sorrows.
And when they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Note that these things did not happen immediately after the adoration of the Magi. Something must be supplied here from S. Luke (ii22). That is to say, after their departure on the6th of January, Christ was taken to Jerusalem, and presented in the Temple; this was on the2nd of February. From thence He returned to His own country, Nazareth, and from thence He fled into Egypt. So Euthymius and Maldonatus, in loc.; also Ammon and Tatian, in Harmon. Evangel.
Although S. Augustine, and Jansen after him, think that Christ went into Egypt from Juda, and not from Galilee, because S. Matthew here says ver22, that when Joseph was returning from Egypt, he was minded to go into Juda. And so they say that he had fled into Egypt from Juda, but S. Matthew does not say this expressly, but, "When he heard that Archelaus reigned in Juda in the stead of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go thither." This, indeed, intimates that he was thinking of going into Juda, probably to Jerusalem and the Temple, there to give God thanks for his safe return, as pious persons are wont to do.
The reason why Christ fled into Egypt, rather than into Assyria, or any other country is:—1. Because it was near to Judæa, and on account of the streams of the Nile, by which it was surrounded, and the sea, by which it wa
Although S. Augustine, and Jansen after him, think that Christ went into Egypt from Juda, and not from Galilee, because S. Matthew here says ver22, that when Joseph was returning from Egypt, he was minded to go into Juda. And so they say that he had fled into Egypt from Juda, but S. Matthew does not say this expressly, but, "When he heard that Archelaus reigned in Juda in the stead of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go thither." This, indeed, intimates that he was thinking of going into Juda, probably to Jerusalem and the Temple, there to give God thanks for his safe return, as pious persons are wont to do.
The reason why Christ fled into Egypt, rather than into Assyria, or any other country is:—1. Because it was near to Judæa, and on account of the streams of the Nile, by which it was surrounded, and the sea, by which it was washed, secure from the attacks of enemies. Hence, when the Jews fled from the Chaldæans and the Assyrians, they went into Egypt.
2. Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the children of Israel, from whom Christ was sprung, dwelt in Egypt for two hundred years, and were called forth from thence by God, by the hand of Moses. And this was a type of the calling back of Christ out of Egypt, as S. Matthew adds, That it might be fulfilled which was spoken of The Lord by The prophet (Hosea xi.), saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. Especially because the Hebrews were delivered out of Egypt by the blood of the Paschal Lamb, which was a type of Christ. "That not without that region the sacrament of the one only Victim might be prepared, in which first the safe-giving sign of the slaying of the Lamb, and the Passover of the Lord, had been prefigured," says S. Leo. (Serm3de Epiph.)
3. Because Egypt was full of idols and superstitions. They worshipped dogs, crocodiles, cats, calves, rams, goats, and what not? Christ entered into Egypt that He might cleanse it from this filthiness, and consecrate it to the true God. Listen to S. Leo Serm2de Epiph.): "Then also the Saviour was brought to Egypt, in order that a nation given up to ancient errors might now be signed for salvation nigh to come, for hidden grace, and that she which had not yet cast out superstition from her mind might receive truth as her guest." Whence also Isaiah prophesies mystically of the same thing (xix1), saying: "Behold the Lord shall ascend upon a light cloud, and shall enter into Egypt, and all the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence." And so S. Jerome and others relate that the idols of Egypt did, in truth, fall down when Christ came into it. (See my comment on this chapter of Isaiah.)
Sozomen (lib5, c20) relates that there was an ancient tradition that when Christ entered Hermopolis, a city of Egypt, a lofty tree bowed herself down, and worshipped Him as God. Many suchlike things are told, but because they are taken from an apocryphal book, called the "Infancy of the Saviour," and from the Koran, it would seem that they ought to be rejected, as fabulous, or of doubtful credit.
For Herod will seek the child to destroy him. The angel knew this by the revelation of God. He would also conjecture the same thing from the disposition of Herod, and his ambition of reigning. Herod"s suspicious, cruel, savage disposition is thus described by Josephus (lib. I, de Bell. Jud. c19): His fear made him timid, and incited him to every kind of suspicion. And from dread lest any who were obnoxious to him should escape him, he put to the torture many who were innocent.
Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, (mark his prompt obedience) and retired into Egypt—that Christ might sanctify and bless it by His coming. Hence faith and sanctity so flourished in Egypt that it produced the Pauls, the Antonys, the Macarii, and those crowds of monks and anchorites who emulated the life of angels upon earth, as is seen in Eusebius, S. Jerome, Palladius, S. Athanasius, and the lives of the Fathers. Whence S. Chrysostom, in loc., says, that Christ converted Egypt into a paradise. "Heaven does not shine so brightly with the various choirs of the stars as Egypt is illuminated by its innumerable habitations of monks and virgins." And Trismegistus, quoted by S. Austin (lib8, de Civ. Dei, c14), says, "Egypt is an image of Heaven, and the temple of the whole world."
Adrichomius adds out of Brocardus and Saligniac, in his description of the Holy Land (page47, n116), on the word Engaddi, that when Jesus fled out of Juda into Egypt, He took balsam with Him. For Cleopatra, the friend of Antony, envying Herod the possession of such a treasure, obtained from Antony the privilege of transporting balsam-plants out of Juda into Egypt. (See Josephus, lib5, Bell. Jud. c. I:3.) This was a just judgment of an avenging God, that Herod before was the possessor of the balsam, but that when he persecuted the child Jesus, Jesus fleeing into Egypt should, as it were, draw the garden of balsam after Him. For Jesus is the true and pure balsam of the soul, according as it is said, "Thy name is oil poured forth." (Song i. Vulg.) Adrichomius adds, this garden in Egypt is irrigated by a small fountain, which has, however, a very copious supply of water; and the tradition is, that in it the Child Jesus was often placed by the Blessed Virgin, and that the holy Joseph often drew water from it, for himself and his holy spouse, when they were in Egypt; and that it is therefore held in great veneration by the inhabitants of the country.
Anselm asserts that Christ, when in Egypt, dwelt in a city called Heliopolis, or the city of the sun. In short, this flight of Christ was a mark, not of fear, but of prudence and fortitude. Hear Chrysologus (Serm50): "So Christ was born that He might make man anew; and that He might recall the fugitives, He fled. And if He himself wandered, so that He might call back the sheep which was wandering upon the mountains, how shall He not flee to bring again His flying people?" And shortly afterwards, "The refuge of all things fled, the help of all things lies hid, the strength of all things fears, the defence of all things defends not himself." And again—"When the valiant warrior flies in battle, it is of design, not fear. When God fled from man, it was a mystery, not from dread."
Tropologically, Christ fled into Egypt that He might teach us to despise exile, and that we, as pilgrims and exiles on the earth, might pant after and strive for heaven as our true country. Whence Peter Chrysologus says (Serm115), "Christ fled that He might make it more tolerable for us, when we have to flee in persecution." S. Gregory Nazian. (Orat28) says—"Every land, and no land is my country." No land was Gregory"s country, because heaven was his country. Again, every land was his country, because he looked upon the whole world as his country. Thus Socrates, when he was asked what countryman he was, replied, "A citizen of the world." S. Basil said the same, as Nazian. testifies (Orat20)—"In every land the brave man is as much at home as fishes in the sea."
And he was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son. He cites Hosea 11:2. See my comment on that prophet, where I have fully expounded the passage.
Tropologically, S. Chrysostom, in loc., says, that God weaves, as it were, a fair and variegated crown out of the prosperous and adverse circumstances of the life of Christ and Christians. When Joseph saw his wife great with child, he was sorely troubled: but forthwith an angel came to him, and put an end to his suspicion, and drove away his fear. Then came the joyful adoration of the Magi, but this was followed by the persecution of Herod, and the flight into Egypt.
It cannot be doubtful that when the Egyptians saw the sanctity of the Blessed Virgin and Joseph, and had had frequent opportunities of converse and intercourse with them, they came to know, worship, and love the true God. The Roman Martyrology assigns the7th of January to the return of Christ from Egypt. Some say that he was three years in Egypt, some seven, others eight. But nothing is certain.
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry: and sending killed all the menchildren that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof. When Herod saw that the wise men did not return, he supposed that they were under a delusion, and had not found Christ, and were therefore ashamed to return. But when he heard of the things which had happened at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, on the2nd of February, how holy Simeon and Anna had openly professed Him to be the Messiah—that is, "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of the people of Israel"-he then saw that he had been mocked by the Magi, and belched forth his burning wrath upon all the children. For, as S. Chrysostom says, "Unquenchable is the anger which jealousy of the rival of a crown enkindles. Like a wounded wild beast, it tears in pieces whatever meets the eye, as if the cause of his wounds."
Herod"s inordinate ambition for retaining and augmenting the kingdom of Juda drove him to this horrible infanticide. He knew from the Scribes that the time of Messiah was near at hand, because the sceptre of Judah was transferred to himself, an alien. And he himself was ambitious of the title, and told the Jews that he was their promised Messiah. And he built them that magnificent Temple, rivalling Solomon"s, of which the Jews said to Christ, Six and forty years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days? But vainly did he covet the name of Messiah; for Messias was to spring out of Judah, and was the promised son and heir of David. But Herod was sprung from the Idumans, who were the Jews" constant enemies. Herod then, becoming aware that the true Messiah was born, and had been indicated to the Magi by a star, destined Him to death. And when he learnt from the Scribes that He was born in Bethlehem, but knew not in what family, or house, he slew all the infants of Bethlehem. But see here the just judgment of God, by which it came to pass that Herod, by that very act, confirmed the kingdom to Christ, and took it away from himself. For, as a punishment of his wickedness, Herod slew his own sons, who would have succeeded him in his kingdom, and in the same year, shortly after this massacre of the infants and his son Antipater, he himself was eaten of worms, and died just before the Passover. Again, Christ escaped the massacre of the infants by flying into Egypt; and from thence, by degrees, His name, and kingdom, and glory increased. Yea, the infants slain by Herod out of hatred of the Messiah, by their very death attested that Christ was born.
Tropologically, Herod is the devil, who strives to cut off infants—that is, those who are weak in faith and virtue, also the first inspirations from God, and good thoughts, before they have become strong and increased. "Whence if he slay the little ones," says S. Leo (Serm2de Epiph.), "he appears to himself to kill Jesus, which indeed he strives to do without ceasing, whilst he endeavours to deprive those newly born again of the Holy Spirit, and to kill, as it were, the infancy of tender faith."
From two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. The Greek is, α̉πὸ διετιάς—i.e., from two years. The Syriac and Arabic give this turn to it, from the son of two years. The Egyptian, from two years and under. Thus, also, the Persian version. For, diligently inquired, the Greek has ρ̉κρίβωσε, accurately searched out.
You will ask why he slew all the children under two years old, especially since many are of opinion that Herod slew them immediately after the departure of the Magi—as soon, that is, as he had heard of Christ"s Presentation in the Temple. And this was before the Passover, when Christ was three months old? Jansen, Maldonatus, Baronius, and others reply, that he did it out of his intense fear of losing his kingdom through Messiah, and so extended the three months from Christ"s birth to two years. If you object that Matthew says this slaughter was made from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the Magi, they answer that the expression, according to the time, &c., must be referred, not to the words, from two years old, but to, from under, so as to signify that Herod made, not a beginning, but only a termination of slaughtering the children, according to the time which he had inquired of the Magi, that, indeed, he should not further kill infants who were born subsequent to those thirteen days which had elapsed after the appearance of the star which indicated the birth of Christ; meaning that Herod slew all the infants from two years old because he was very sagacious and cruel; and below two years old, according to the time which he had carefully inquired of the Magi, because he excepted only those from slaughter who were born after the time at which the star had declared the birth of Christ; for he felt secure that none of those who were born after the star could be Messiah, and give him cause of apprehension.
But it seems scarcely credible that one so ambitious and fearful as Herod should have wished to kill infants born two years before the appearing of the star, and yet have spared those who were born a few days after its appearance, when there would be an equal or greater reason for suspecting that Christ might be amongst these last, especially in the case of such a very suspicious person as Herod. Whence Bede, the Gloss, Dionysius, and Barradi think that he killed the little infants who were born after as well as before the appearing of the star. But why did he slay infants born almost two years before the star appeared? for there could be no suspicion that Christ was born amongst them. So that to kill them would have been not merely inhuman, but altogether foolish and brutish, and could have had no other effect than to expose him to universal infamy and execration—yea, to raise up every one in arms against him as an intolerable tyrant, and more like a wild beast than a human being.
I maintain, therefore, that not immediately, nor even in the same year in which the Magi came, did Herod put the infants to death; but in the following, or second year from the birth of Christ. And so the meaning is, that Herod slew the children from two years old, that is, who were two years old and under,—that is, those who had not yet reached that age; but who were a year, or so many months, or days old. That is, he slew all who had been born within two years from the rising of the star, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Again, the expression, according to the time &c., might more strictly and precisely be taken thus: Herod did not take the whole time of the two years, but drew his conclusions from when the star appeared, which was the period whence the rising of the star began, but which was not completed. For Herod slew the children in the second year from the rising of the star, about the time of the Passover, or when Christ was about a year and three months old. Wherefore, he did not slay those who were born much before the fifteen months since which the star appeared. This is the force of the expression, he diligently inquired, in order that he might slay only those who had been born about the time when the star appeared, and not those who were born much before or much after, that he might not, with uselessly barbarous cruelty, slay more than might be necessary to secure the death of Christ.
So that, from two years old and under, &c., means the same thing as those who were fifteen months old. That was the time of the appearance of the star, and it continued for thirteen days, during which it went before the Magi to Bethlehem. Herod, therefore, would only seem to have slain the infants who were about fifteen months of age. For he believed the wise men, that Christ had been born at the time when his birth had been indicated by the star, and neither much before nor yet much after. So that he did not desire that any should be slain except such as were born about the time of the star"s appearance. And hence we may gather that the expression, from two years old and under, should be taken, not disjunctively, but unitedly, as when we say, "Two and three are five;" "All the planets are seven," &c.
That this murder of the Innocents took place, not in the third month, but after the commencement of the second year, or about fifteen months from the birth of Christ, is the common opinion of Eusebius (in his Chronicle), Epiphanius (Hæres30), S. Augustine (Serm. de Epiph.), Encherius, Cedrinus, S. Anselm, Haymo, Hugo Victor, S. Thomas, &c. But some of these have not correctly distinguished either the rising of the star from the birth of Christ (for they say that it appeared to the Magi two years before Christ"s birth, as SS. Augustine and Chrysostom); or the birth of Christ and the appearance of the star from the adoration of the Magi; for they say that on account of the length of the journey, they arrived at Bethlehem, and worshipped Christ there, two years after His birth. So S. Epiphanius (lib2, Hæres30, contra Ebionæos), and the Imperfect Author; for it is far more probable that the star arose at the same time that Christ was born, that it might be, as it were, an indicator and standard-bearer of that event, and that the Magi came to Bethlehem in the same year in which the birth of Christ took place,—indeed thirteen days afterwards; and that Herod put off the infanticide, which he had already planned in his mind, until the year following, for reasons which I shall assign presently. The obvious meaning of S. Matthew"s narrative, and especially the expression, from two years old, require this meaning. Also the number of events which happened after the Adoration, and before the Flight into Egypt, require the same sense; for after the departure of the Magi, Christ was presented in the Temple on the2nd of February. After that He went and dwelt in Nazareth, and from that place fled into Egypt, as is clear from S. Luke (ii22-39). And all this would occupy many weeks, or rather months.
What Nicephorus (lib. I, C14) and Cedrinus say is in favour of this opinion. They say that S. John Baptist, on account of this persecution, fled into the wilderness when he was in his second year, that is,—when he was not quite two years old. For the Baptist was born six months before Christ; so that, at the time of the Infanticide, he was a year and nine months old. Whence Nicephorus relates: "When John was a year and a half old, he was preserved in safety, with his mother Elizabeth, in a cave in the mountains, probably to escape the bloody hand of Herod."
Again, Macrobius says, not from two years old, but under two years, the infants were slain by Herod. Those who were fifteen months would be under two years old. In addition to this, Lucius Dexter says, in his Chronicle: "In the third year of Christ (U.R.C. 754) Herod slays all the male children in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood." It was the third year from the birth of Christ by beginning the year with the1st of January.
You may ask why Herod put off the Infanticide until the second year from the rising of the star and the birth of Christ. It is answered:—
1. That he might the better, by degrees, inform himself of the birth, person, parentage, and dwelling of Christ. So the Gloss. Again, because he sought by all means to avoid the imputation of such hateful cruelty, by finding and killing Christ alone. S. Matthew appears to intimate this (ver13). so S. Augustine (lib. de Consens. Evang2, c12).
2. Because, as Euthymius, S. Thomas, and Lyra show, Herod, towards the close of his life, being accused by the Arabians before Augustus Csar, that emperor three times refused even to speak to his ambassadors, although at length with wonderful art he appeased Csar, as Josephus relates, Ant. lib17, c7, &c. And then he sought and obtained permission from Augustus, as it would seem, to slay the children; in which Augustus deserves no small blame for giving this permission. So Ruperti, lib2de Vict., c2.
3. He delayed the massacre in order to find out a sure way of killing all the infants, that none might be hidden by their mothers and so escape. Hence Abulensis thinks that Herod, in the first place, ordered the little boys to be enrolled with the name and age of each; and, when he had gathered them together, slew them all; but that he gathered them, not in one place, but in the various villages or districts, to each of which he sent executioners to seek out, gather together, and slay. Such a thing might be easily done amongst the Jews, because they kept very exact records of their genealogies, that it might be known that Messiah was born, according to Jacob"s prophecy of the tribe of Judah. Hence, when any child was circumcised, his name and parents, and the date of his birth, were set down, just as parish priests register the children who are baptized.
S. Antoninus thinks that Herod instituted a feast for boys, and ordered all the mothers to bring all their children who were about two years of age, as though they were to receive a reward.
Moreover Herod obtained leave from Augustus to put his own three sons, Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater to death. Whence he slew the first two named some time previously, and Antipater about five days before his own death, which happened, says Josephus, at the Passover, in the thirty-seventh year of his reign. (Ant. lib17, cc10 & II.) And it was then he slew the young children. This we learn from Macrobius. who, amongst other anecdotes of Augustus, relates this (Saturnal. lib2, c10): "When he heard that the king of the Jews had ordered the boys in Syria under two years old to be slain, and that his own son had been killed, he said, "It were better to be Herod"s pig than his son, because the Jews do not eat pork.""
From what has been said, it may be gathered that the infants were slain about the time of the Passover, or about fifteen months from the birth of Christ. The Church, however, celebrates their festival at Christmas, because they were killed for Christ"s sake, that she may thus, as it were, magnify and decorate the Festival of the Nativity. Barradi, however, and Emmanuel Sa., think that they were slain on the anniversary of the very day on which the Church keeps their festival. They were slain when Christ was in the second year of His age, in spring and in the month of March, when their ancestress, Rachel, had died ( Genesis 35:16). It was about the same time that he ordered his own son Antipater to be put to death. He also cut off the Sanhedrim, as the great Council of the Jews is called, together with many of the Pharisees, because they would not acknowledge him to be king. The rest were compelled to take an oath of allegiance. In doing these things, he was aided by his father-in-law, Simon the son of Boethus, whom he had made high priest. And all was with the connivance of Quintilius Varro, the governor of Syria, a friend of Herod"s. Whence he was not afraid to shut up all the chief of the Jews in prison, and would have put them to death if he had lived. For just before his own death, he ordered his sister Salome, and her husband, Alexas, to kill them, in order, as he said, "that the Jews may wail at my death, whether they like it or not, since they must weep for their own friends." But Salome, who was of a milder disposition, set them all at liberty as soon as Herod was dead. So Josephus, &c.
Some think from the Apocalypse (xiv. I) that the infants who were slain by Herod were144,000, But S. John is speaking of the Virgins who shall resist the lust and persecution of Antichrist, even unto death and martyrdom. Neither is it credible that in so small a district as that of Bethlehem there were144,000 boys under two years old. What the Abyssinians have in their Canon of the Mass, that the number was14,000 is rather more probable; of this opinion are the Jesuit Salmeron, Franc. Lucas, and Gerebrard (lib2, Chronolog. A.C. III.). This last adds, that the Greeks give the same number in their Kalendar. And yet it is hard to suppose that there could be14,000 infants in so small a place, more than are to be found in Rome, or Naples, or Milan, or other large cities.
Note, in the first place, that the infants who were slain by Herod, through hatred of Christ, were true martyrs, and as such are honoured by the Church, and their Festival kept. And the same may be said of all infants who are killed out of hatred to the Faith, through the unmerited and bountiful disposition of God.
Whence it follows that martyrdom justifies ex opere operato, for by it these little ones who had not yet been circumcised were cleansed from original sin and justified; and the same thing was wrought which baptism worketh. So the Fathers and Doctors, passim, and indeed the whole Church. (See S. Bernard, Serm. de Innocent.) Hence Doctors teach that there are three classes of martyrs. To the first belong those who, in deed as well as will, are martyrs. Such are adults who voluntarily accept death from a tyrant for the sake of Christ. The second class are those who are martyrs only in deed; such as infants who are slain for Christ. The third are those who are martyrs only in will—who desire martyrdom as S. Francis desired it. With this object in view he sent to the sultan of Egypt; but he, seeing him to be a holy man, would not kill him. Thus he missed the laurel crown of actual martyrdom.
Note, secondly, the wonderful providence of God, whereby, first, He punished the Bethlehemites by the slaughter of their children, because they themselves would not receive the Blessed Virgin, and her Son Jesus with hospitality, but compelled her to go into a stable, and there bring forth. Secondly, because by means of this massacre, He decorated the boys themselves, who were slain, with the laurel of martyrdom. Thirdly, because He brought about that Christ should escape by flight into Egypt, and should through this slaughter become better known to the world. By this "it was prophetically declared that the Church of God should increase by the cruel fury of her persecutors; since by the punishments and deaths of the blessed martyrs, whilst Christians were supposed to be diminished in numbers, they were augmented by example." (S. Leo, Serm. de Epiph.) "And the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians," as Tertullian observes in the end of his Apology.
Moreover, Christ as He was man, although an infant, had the use of reason. And when the WORD, which was united to Him, revealed to Him this slaughter of the little children for His sake, He grieved, because of the deep sympathy of His tenderness, and suffered with them and their parents. But in spirit He exulted over their glory and martyrdom. And thus He offered them to God the Father, as the first-fruits of His Advent, and the earliest oblations of His grace.
Note, thirdly, God"s just vengeance upon Herod for his murder of the infants, and as far as in him lay of Christ Himself. For, five days after the masacre, he himself breathed out his cruel soul; being smitten with fever, a cough, dysentery, dropsy, gout, consumption, the lousy disease, putrefaction, asthma, and such an intolerable stench, that he endeavoured to lay violent hands upon himself. His sons were not allowed to reign as kings, but were only tetrarchs, and perished miserably. Also his entire posterity, most numerous as it was, became, with few exceptions, entirely extinct within a hundred years, as Josephus relates (Ant. lib17, c8, &c.), who adds that all men were of opinion that it was the effect of the just vengeance of God.
Allegorically, the infants slain by Herod at the Passover, as it were Paschal lambs, were a type of Christ, who, thirty-two years afterwards, was mocked by Herod, a descendant of this Herod the infanticide, and crucified by Pilate at the season of the Passover, and who offered Himself to God the Father, as it were a Lamb and a Paschal Victim, for the salvation of the world. Hear S. Augustine (Serm8 de Sanctis): "When Christ was born, grief began, not in heaven, but on earth. To mothers is proclaimed lamentation, to angels exultation, to infants translation. He is God who is born. To Him innocents are due as victims, for He came to condemn the wickedness of the world. Angels ought to be immolated, because the Lamb, who taketh away the sins of the world is about to be crucified. But the mother-sheep lament, because they lose their lambs bleating without speech: a glorious martyrdom, though a cruel spectacle."
And Prudentius, in his hymn. says:—
"You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Before the Altar"s heavenly ray,
With martyr palms and crowns ye play."
Symbolically, the children who were slain by Herod in the springtime were like vernal flowers put forth in the country of Bethlehem by the warmth of the rays of the Sun of righteousness, and offered to Jesus of Nazareth as the Flourishing One. Whence Prudentius in his Epiphany hymn, and the Church in her office, sings:—
"All hail ye infant martyr flowers,
Cut off in life"s first dawning hours;
As rosebuds snapt in tempest strife,
When Herod sought your Saviour"s life."
And S. Augustine (Serm2de Innocent.): "How happily born were they whom eternal life met on the threshold of existence." And (Serm3): "Rightly are these Innocents called the flowers of the Martyrs, whom, in the mid-winter of unbelief, a hoar frost as it were of persecution caused to bloom like the primal buds of the Church."
And S. Chrysostom (Serm4) says: "Infancy, unconscious of suffering, bore away the palms and crowns of martyrdom. True martyrs of grace! they confess without voice; knowing it not they fight; ignorant of it, they conquer; unconscious, they die, they bear away the palms, they seize the crowns."
We see that God made these little ones first to triumph, then to live. He adorns them with crowns before He bestows upon them perfect members.
Tropologically, Christ loves infants, that is, the little ones and the lowly; and raises such to the perfection of grace, that is, to martyrdom. Hence He Himself says, "Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Hear S. Leo (Serm7, in Epiphan.): "Wherefore my beloved brethren, the whole discipline of Christian wisdom consisteth, not in a copious flow of words, nor in cunning disputation, nor in the desire of praise and glory, but in true and voluntary humility, which the Lord Jesus Christ, from His mother"s womb even unto the death of the Cross, both chose and taught instead of every kind of strength." And shortly afterwards: "He loveth infancy, which at the first He assumed, both in mind and body. Christ loveth infancy, the mistress of humility, the rule of innocence, the pattern of meekness. Christ loves infancy, which guides the manners of elders; unto which He directs the years of old men, and inclines to His own example those whom He would lift on high to the eternal kingdom." And previously: "The whole victory of the Saviour, which overcame both the devil and the world, was conceived and completed by humility."
Verses17, 18.—Then was fulfilled, &c. They are not, because indeed, as far as the body was concerned they perished, in that they were slain by Herod; but as to their souls, they were carried into eternity, says S. Hilary.
I have explained this passage in my Commentary on Jeremiah 31:15, which see.
S. Augustine graphically portrays this weeping of the mothers (Serm. I de Innocent.), and thus concludes: "The lamentation of the mothers was mingled with the oblation of the little ones, as they passed into heaven."
Tropologically, Rachel, the sheep, as the word signifies in Hebrew, bewails the death of her lambs; but the angels rejoice, yea, even the little ones, because their souls passed to the society of the angels.
Whence S. Augustine (Serm3de Innocent.): "Behold, the profane enemy could never have benefited the little ones by kindness as much as he did by hatred. And wherefore? Because they received the dignity of eternal life before they received the use of time present." Therefore, in being born, they died unto the world; and by dying, they began to live in heaven. To these infants are most appropriate those words of S. Paul: "We are made a spectacle (Gr. θεατρὸν, a theatre) to the world, and to angels, and to men." ( 1 Corinthians 4:9.) That is to say, in the circus, in the amphitheatre, we are seen of all. We are βιοθάνατοι,—i.e. we are exposed to gladiators and to wild beasts.
Wherefore consider: by this infanticide God would teach us, as by a scenic representation, that the whole of a Christian"s life, from childhood unto death, is perpetual persecution, the cross and death; and that the fortitude and courage of a Christian consist rather in enduring hardness than in doing hard things; in constant patience than in fighting: for it is more difficult to suffer than to act and fight. "To act bravely," saith one, "is the part of a Roman; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian." When Christ suffered for us, He said, "I have given my body to the strikers, and my cheeks to them that plucked them. I have not turned away my face from them that rebuked me, and spit upon me." (Isaiah i6.)
These little ones in their turn, for Christ"s sake, gave their limbs to be mangled by the executioners. A Christian may do the same, and for God"s sake give his body for a prey, give it unto death, unto labours, unto torments of every kind. Thus did S. Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli, who writes to his flock, "I have given my body to the Arians for a prey." By them he was tormented, and became a glorious martyr of Christ, and a defender of His Godhead, even unto death. Truly saith S. Fulgentius (de Epiph.), "To this end God permitted Herod to slay the infants, that He might cause them to triumph over Herod." Lastly, S. Cyprian (lib4, Epist6 ad Thibarit.) says, "An age not suitable for battle was made fit for a crown. The Son of God suffered that He might make us sons of God; and the Son of Man wills not to suffer, that He may continue to be the Son of God."
Now when Herod was dead, &c. (verses19, 20). Herod died a few days after the slaughter of Antipater, as Josephus says, and so but a few days after the murder of the Innocents, as is clear from Macrobius. Hence Christ does not appear to have remained in Egypt more than two years. For He did not go there more than one year before Herod"s death; and after Herod"s death, when Archelaus his son had been to Rome and returned, Christ came back from Egypt, as the Gospel here states. Thus Onuphrius Pavinus, (in his Fasti), and before him S. Epiphanius (Hres78); although Baronius thinks that Christ returned from Egypt in the ninth year of His age.
They are dead, &c. They, viz., Herod and his sons Aristobulus, Alexander, and Antipater, who, it would appear, entered into a conspiracy with the Scribes and Pharisees against their father, and by consequence against Messiah, and were by Herod put to death.
Verses21, 22. Who arose, and took the child &c. Observe, Archelaus reigned as tetrarch, not as king. The angel had said to Joseph, Go into the land of Israel. Joseph understood Juda, because that was the most important part of the land of Israel, and therein was the temple. Thither, therefore, he thought of going to render God thanks for his happy return, especially because, by God"s command, all the Hebrew males were commanded to go up to the temple thrice a year. Whence St. Augustine (lib2de Consensu. Evang. c9): "The angel does not express into what part, that he may return to him again, when he is in doubt; but because he had not told him expressly, Joseph understood Judaea, the more worthy part of the kingdom: for he thought that with such a boy he might only dwell at Jerusalem. But the angel meant Galilee."
Moreover, Joseph turned aside into Galilee, although he knew that Herod Antipas, the brother of Archelaus, ruled there. He did so, both because Archelaus was more ambitious and cruel than Antipas, as because the infant slaughter of Herod of Ascalon, the father of Archelaus and Antipas, had taken place in Juda, namely, in Bethlehem. Wherefore Archelaus would remember it, and would easily perceive that when Christ came back to Juda He had escaped the slaughter, and would therefore again seek to put Him to death.
Fully to enter into this history ab ovo, as they say, consult Josephus, Ant. Lib10, c10, et seq. When Herod died, in the thirty-seventh year of his reign, two of his surviving sons—Archelaus, and Herod Antipas, who clothed Christ in His Passion with a white robe, to mock Him—contended together for the possession of his kingdom. Augustus entrusted the settlement of the dispute to Caius Cæsar his grandson by his daughter Julia, who decided as follows—that neither disputant should succeed to the kingdom, but that it should be divided into four tetrarchies, whose rulers should be tetrarchs, not kings. In pursuance of this he assigned Judæa to Archelaus, Galilee to Antipas, Trachonitis to their third brother, Philip, Abilene to Lysanias. This is clear from Luke iii1. When, therefore, S. Matthew says, Archelaus reigned, you must not understand that he was a king, or had the title of a king, but of a tetrarch, or toparch, but yet with the hope of the kingdom and the kingly name, if he conducted himself well, according to the promise of Augustus Cæsar.
After Archelaus had reigned as tetrarch for nine years, he was sent into exile for his bad government, thirty-seven years after the battle of Actium, and seven before the death of Augustus. So Josephus, Eusebius, Scaliger, &c.
After Archelaus was exiled, Augustus appointed governors of Juda, who ruled it in his name. There were three of those who presided over Juda during the seven years which elapsed before the death of Augustus. The first was Coponius, who, together with Quirinus, prefect of Syria, confiscated the riches of Archelaus; the second was M. Ambinius; the third was Annius Rufus.
From these facts much light is thrown upon the narratives of SS. Matthew and Luke. And, in the first place, it is clear why Matthew says that Joseph turned aside into Galilee from fear of Archelaus, reigning in Juda. It was lest he, following in the steps of his father Herod, should seek to slay Christ, as the King of the Jews. In the second place, we see why Christ only went up to the temple in Juda when He was twelve years old: Archelaus had been then deprived of the tetrarchy, and driven into exile. In Archelaus the race of Herod ceased to rule in Juda, and were succeeded by Roman governors, from whom Christ had nothing to fear, for they knew Him not, and had not heard even His name.
Ver23.—And he came and dwelt, &c. S. Mark 1:24, following the Latins, has Ναζαρηνὸς; the other Evangelists write Ναζαραίος. Adrichomius (Descr. Terræ Sanctæ, p241, Numbers 73) gives the following account of Nazareth, which he has collected out of S. Jerome, Eusebius, Brochard, and others:—"Nazareth, which is interpreted a flower, is a fair and flourishing city of Galilee, not far from Capharnaum. It is built upon a mountain, which it girds like a crown. It is two leagues from Mount Tabor, and three days" journey from Jerusalem. Here Blessed Mary, the Flower of Virgins, was born; here Christ, our Lord and Saviour, our glory and our crown, like a flower of the field, as Jerome says, was conceived and brought up in all virtues, and lived for four-and-twenty years. Hence this was His own and His father"s city; hence, also, He was called Nazarenus, or Nazaræus, and a Galilæan; hence, too, we who now are called Christians were anciently called Nazarenes and Galilæans, as terms of reproach."
"Moreover," says Rabanus, "Galilee is interpreted migration, Nazareth a flower, because the more earnestly the Church passes over to heavenly things, the more she abounds in the flowers of virtues.
That it might be fulfilled—a Nazarene. The name of Nazareth does not once occur in the Old Testament. Hence we are unable to tell whether it were written in Hebrew with zain or tsade. If with the former, Nazareth means sanctified, separate, consecrated; if with tsade, full of flowers, or guarded.
The question arises, by what prophet, when, and wherefore was Christ called a Nazarene? There are several opinions; two are most probable:?
1. Christ was called a Nazarene, in Hebrew nazir, or nozeri, written with zain, meaning separate, holy, consecrate, crowned, religious, because Christ, as man, being separated from every other thing, was hypostatically and wholly united to the WORD. For the word nazar signifies to separate, to consecrate, to crown. Wherefore the religious, under the old law, who separated themselves from wine and from the world, and consecrated themselves to God, were called Nazarites. (See Numbers 6:2, seq.) But that Christ would be holy, and consecrated to God, all the prophets foretold, especially Daniel 19:24: "The Holy of Holies—i.e., Christ—shall be anointed." (Vulg.) Thus, too, Samson, who was a type of Christ, was a Nazarite. (Judg. xiii7.) So, too, was Joseph. ( Genesis 49:2.) And as Joseph, after his imprisonment, was made lord of Egypt, so Christ, after His death, was made lord of the universe. So S. Ambrose and Ruperti.
These Nazarites, however, are called in Greek Ναζαραίοι, written with alpha (Nazaræi); but Christ is always called Ναζωραίος, (Nazoraeus), written with omega, to distinguish him from the Nazarites, because he was not a Nazarite by vow, like them, but was called Nazaræus, from his country, Nazareth. Christ drank wine, which was forbidden to the Nazarites by their vow. The above is the explanation of S. Jerome on this passage, and of Eusebius (lib7, de Demonstrat. c2, Dem5), where he cites Leviticus 21:12, concerning the Aaronic priest, who was a type of Christ: "Neither shall he go forth out of the holy place, because the oil of the holy anointing of his God is upon him." Instead of holy, as qualifying anointing, the Hebrew has nezar, i.e., consecration, or sanctification with the oil of the anointing of his God. The index of Hebrew words usually found at the end of our Bibles, and Paul of Burgos, think that the passage which is here cited is Psalm 131:18: "Upon him shall my sanctification flourish." (Vulg.Heb. nizri, which S. Jerome translates his diadem.) Whence also the golden plate affixed to the pontifical tiara, on which was inscribed, Holiness to the Lord, is called nezor, i.e., a crown or diadem of holiness. ( Exodus 29:6.) It was a type, yea, an index of Christ of Nazareth, holy and crowned. To this the Apostle alludes ( Hebrews 2:9): "We see Jesus, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour." On which see my comment.
Eusebius says, the LXX translate nazer by holy; Aquila has separation; Symmachus, untouched. From these, therefore, the name Nazaraeus signifies either holy, or separate, or untouched. But some of the ancient priests, who were anointed with the prepared oil, which was called by Moses nazer, were named Nazarites from this word nazer. But our Saviour and Lord, by His own nature possessing in Himself holiness and separation, neither having need of any human anointing, still obtained the title of a Nazarite among men; not as though He were so called from any oil named nazer, but from the city Nazareth, where He was brought up among His own relations, forasmuch as He was a man. Christ, therefore, was a Nazarite, i.e., separated from other men, sanctified, consecrated, and crowned High Priest, Legislator, Teacher, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of the Universe.
The letter which is employed favours this opinion. The Evangelists always wrote Nazaræus, or Nazarenus, with the letter z, which is the one which occurs in the Hebrew nezer and nazir. For if Nazarene is derived from נצר nezer, with tsade, so as to signify flourishing, it ought to be written Nasarene with an s. In all other names the Hebrew letter tsade is represented by an s (in the Vulg.), as in Bosra, Asor (see Joshua, chaps. xii. and xv., where some suppose Asor to be Nazareth), Melchisedech, Sabaoth, &c. On the other hand the Hebrew zain is translated by our z, as appears from Zabulon, Zacharias, Beelzebub, &c.
Let us add, it is more worthy the dignity of Christ that He should be called Nazarene, with the letter zain, i.e., holy, than Nasarene, with tsade, that is, flourishing. For נזר nazer, i.e., holiness, the consecration and crown of Christ, quà man, was the hypostatic union, or rather the actual Godhead of the WORD, which crowned, sanctified, separated to Itself, united, and consecrated the whole Humanity of Christ. Lastly, it is in favour of this opinion that S. Matthew says, "which was spoken by the prophets," not by the prophet; "by which he shows," says S. Jerome, "that he was not quoting the words of one passage of Scripture, but the sense of several."
2. It is the opinion of others that Christ is called a Nasarene from נצר neser, with tsade—i.e., flourishing, from flower—or, rather, germinating, from germ. For both Aquila and Theodotion, according to S. Jerome, render neser in Isaiah 11:2 by germen. In Isaiah xi1, the Vulg. has, "A flower shall rise up out of his root," translating the Hebrew neser by flower. Nazarene, therefore, is the same as flourishing or germinating, growing into a great and glorious tree, and producing abundant fruit.
The first reason is that Christ is elsewhere called צמה tsemach—i.e., germen, which the Vulg. renders Oriens, the dawn, or daystar, as though arising out of the earth. (See Zechariah 6:12; Zechariah 3:8.) For Christ sprung from the Virgin as an undefiled germen, or plant, and pure from every stain of sin. So He flourished with every virtue, and scattered the odour of His sweetness far and wide. Whence S. Ambrose (lib. de Spirit. Sanct., c5) says, "When a flower is plucked, it does not lose its smell; when it is bruised, it increases it." So, when Christ was bruised in His Passion, He the more manifested the power of His Divinity and His grace.
The second reason is that in the inscription placed on the Cross of Christ, which is preserved in the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, in Rome, נצרי notseri is written with tsade, not zain. So says Pagninus, from ocular inspection. So, too, the Syrian and Arabic versions write Nazarene with tsade. And the modern Jewish Rabbis call Christians Notserim—i.e., Nazarenes, writing the word with tsade.
I myself have often seen the title of the Cross at Rome and carefully inspected it, but the letters are so worn away that I have never been able to see that the Hebrew inscription has tsade. On the contrary, zain, not tsade, seemed to me to be the letter. Bosius (lib. I de Cruce triumph.) has a perfectly exact impression of the superscription of the Cross. Examine it, and you will agree with me. Besides, this title was written by Pilate the Roman governor, or his Roman servants, who had little knowledge of Hebrew, and could not tell whether Nazarene were spelt with a tsade or a zain, and certainly would not care for the distinction between them. Various commentators, as Rabanus, Salmeron, Jansen, &c., write Nazarene with a tsade, and translate it flourishing, but most of them seem to have been influenced by Pagninus, who said that he had found notseri spelt with a tsade on the title of the Cross.
Both opinions may be conjoined and reconciled with each other by saying that if you look strictly to the letters you will find נזר nezer with zain—that is to say, holiness, consecration, crown; yet that there is an allusion to netser with tsade—i.e., a shoot, a flower—for these two letters are somewhat akin both in form and sound, and are occasionally interchanged both with one another and with some other Hebrew letters, as appears in the conjugation Hispael. (See Bellarmine"s Hebrew Grammar.) Wherefore the Psalmist conjoins the two ( Psalm 131:18), saying: "My sanctification (nazer) shall flourish (nazarene) upon him." (Vulg.) So also S. Jerome says, "Nazaræus is interpreted holy." All Scripture testifies that the Lord shall be holy. We are able also to use, in another sense, what is written in the same words in the Prophet Isaiah according to the Hebrew verity, "Behold a rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse, and a Nazarene shall arise out of his root." Lastly, as in their letters, so also in their significations these two words are closely connected; for He who is Nazarenus—i.e., separated from earthly pleasures—is likewise Nasaræus—i.e., flourishing with virtues. Hence some derive the Greek άγιος, holy from α̉, not and γή the earth; for he who is separated from the earth, cultivates heavenly things, and is holy.
Matthew adds this, because Nazareth was a small and despised town. Hence the name of Nazarene seemed both to Jews and Gentiles vile and mean, so that on account of it many were kept back from Christ, and from acknowledging Him as Messiah. Whence Nathanael said to Philip, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" And Julian the Apostate was wont, in contempt, to call Christ "the Galilan," and "the Nazarene." When he was struck by a dart from heaven, and was about to die, he cried, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilan, thou hast conquered."
Matthew, therefore, here shows that the name of Nazarene was a glorious one, forasmuch as it had been spoken of by the prophets, and assigned to Christ many ages previously.
The sense then is as follows—although Christ was born in Bethlehem He was conceived and brought up in Nazareth, a city small and obscure, that He might the better elude Herod and his posterity when they sought to slay Him, and that He might give us an example of humility and contempt of the pomps of the world. Whence He was called a Nazarene from the city of Nazareth, but so that not only the name Nazarene, but what was signified by the name, that is, holiness, should apply to Him. So there was in reality fulfilled what Isaiah and the prophets foretold concerning Christ, that He was nazir, holy, and noseri, or Nasaræus, flourishing with all virtue and grace.
Consequently, the name of Nazarene, which the Jews and others gave to Christ by way of reproach, is most illustrious, yea, a note and mark of the true Messiah; for by this very title the prophets indicated and glorified Messiah.
Tropologically, Christ is a Nazarene, i.e., separated from the world and consecrated to God, flourishing with all virtues, and the origin, father, and prince of the Nazarenes, that is, the religious, who despise the world, and dedicate themselves wholly to God, that they may flourish in virtues, according to those words in Lam. iv7. "Her Nazarites were fairer than snow, whiter than milk; they were more ruddy than ancient ivory, brighter than sapphires." (Vulg.) Where see my Comment.
Salmeron adds, Nazarene is the same as Samaritan, i.e., a keeper (for נצר natsar, is to keep, to guard) namely of men; according to those words of Job, "What shall I do unto thee, O thou keeper of men?" (Vulg.) And Psalm 121., "Behold He shall neither slumber nor sleep, that keepeth Israel." So, too, Francis Lucas says, Nazarene, that is, keeper, preserver, defender. By Nazareth, therefore, the Blessed Virgin is represented, of whom Christ the Nazarene was born. For she was kept from original sin, from the shame of conception, from the corruption and pain of child-birth, and from turning to dust after death. For the body of the Virgin was not resolved into ashes after her death, as is the lot of other bodies; but it was, together with her soul, taken up into heaven. These things are true, but rather symbolical than literal.
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Lapide, Cornelius. "Commentary on Matthew 2". The Great Biblical Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide. https://www.studylight.org/
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