The Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12
Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” […] Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
We have already discussed the chronology of the events surrounding the Savior’s birth, yet we subtly avoided a most difficult question regarding the feast of the Epiphany – When did the star first appear to the Magi? This is connected with an additional inquiry regarding the time at which the Magi set out from their home country and the length of their travel to Bethlehem. Finally, as we will see, the massacre of the Holy Innocents seems to be related to the time of the appearance of the star.
First, we might ask a most practical question: What does it matter when the star appeared? Why should we be concerned at all to determine the time of the star’s appearance or the duration of the Magi’s journey? To this we respond that it will be good to know when the star appeared, because this will indicate something about the order of the manifestation of the Christ. If, for example, we were to conclude that the star appeared to the Magi two years before the birth of Christ (something which many modern scholars presume), we would have to admit that the Magi received the astronomical salutation before the Blessed Virgin had received the Angelic Salutation – is this fitting?
Moreover, we must say that, even prescinding from the practical value of this question, there is great spiritual value to pondering the events surrounding the Nativity. In much the same manner as St. Ignatius Loyola, who traveled to the hills around Jerusalem with hope of discovering which way Christ was looking as he ascended into heaven, we now will seek to glean from the biblical text some indication of the time in which the star was seen by the Magi.
The biblical account (collected from Matthew and Luke)
And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. And all went to be enrolled, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child. And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him.
And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord. And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their city Nazareth.
And after they [i.e. the Magi] 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. Joseph arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt.
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
The Magi must have arrived shortly after Christ’s Nativity
There are several points which must be recalled from the biblical narrative: The Magi visit Christ in Bethlehem; the Magi visit Christ in what Matthew calls a “home,” which may be different from the “stable” where Luke states the Child was born; after the Presentation in the Temple (forty days after the Birth), Luke tells us that Jesus was taken to Nazareth; it seems that Joseph took his family to Egypt fairly soon after the Magi departed; when Herod realized he was deceived he had the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns killed.
In the previous article, we have seen that the Child was born in a stable and adored that night by the shepherds. However, the Magi probably came shortly later, after the Holy Family had received hospitality in some home in Bethlehem (hence, Matthew speaks of a house). Thus, we can be reasonably certain that the Magi came to Bethlehem at least a day or two after the Nativity. However, it is most certain that they did not come any later than forty days after Christ’s birth, since then the Holy Family would not be in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth (since Luke states that they returned to Nazareth after the Presentation in the Temple which, according to the Law, took place forty days after birth). Hence, we can reasonably conclude that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem somewhere between the second and the fortieth day after Christmas – why not accept the tradition of the thirteenth day?
The star appeared on the day of the Nativity
St. Thomas knew of two opinions about the apparition of the star seen by the Magi: Chrysostom (or the author of the Opus Imperfectum in Mtt.) and Augustine seem to state that the star was first seen by the Magi two full years before the birth of Christ, and that it took these two years for the wise men to make the journey and arrive in Bethlehem (on the thirteenth day after the birth).
On the other hand, St. Thomas mentions “others” who hold that the star first appeared only when Christ was born. According to this opinion, the Magi set off on their journey only on the day of the Nativity and were able to travel a long distance “owing partly to the Divine assistance, and partly to the fleetness of the dromedaries.” This is Thomas’ own opinion (ST III, q.36, a.6, ad 3).
Yet, it may be the case that the star appeared on Christmas day and the Magi arrived thirteen days later on account of the fact that they were not from the far East, but only from a nation a little to the east of Israel – this is the opinion of Cornelius a’ Lapide, and I share it as well.
A good reason to maintain that the star had not appeared to the Magi until the time of Christ’s birth is that, on the presumption that the Magi saw the star two years before the Nativity, the Magi would have learned of the Incarnation even before the Blessed Virgin Mary had! How strange this would be, for the Magi to know of the coming of the King before even the Mother!
Moreover, it seems that Christ should not have been made manifest to the world until after his birth, for until the Nativity he was hidden in the virginal cloister of his Mother’s womb. It is for this reason that the Nativity is celebrated with greater solemnity than the Annunciation (the Incarnation) – it was only in the Nativity that God’s Love was revealed openly to the world. Hence, Christ should first come into the world openly (by his birth) before he is manifested to the wise men. Therefore, we ought to conclude, as a matter of fittingness, that the wise men did not see the star until the very night of the Nativity. In this way also, Christ’s birth was heralded first to the Jews (to the shepherds) and then to the Gentiles (to the Magi).
The massacre of the Holy Innocents seems to have been nearly two years after the first Christmas
The primary reason why some (both of the past and of the present) hold that the star appeared two full years before the Nativity is based on the following line from Matthew 2:16, “Then Herod killed all the men children from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” This time inquired from the wise men seems to refer to Matthew 2:7, “Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of the time of the star which appeared to them.” Hence, it is quite clear that Herod’s massacre of the Innocents was determined (in relation to the age of the children killed) by the time when first the Magi saw the star. The slaughter takes place about two years after the star first appeared.
However, while it seems that we ought to maintain that the star had indeed appeared two years before the slaughtering of the Innocents, this does not determine the relation of the appearance of the star to the Nativity. For indeed, it is quite possible that the slaughtering of the Innocents did not occur until nearly two years after the Nativity. In which case, the star would have first appeared on the night in which Christ was born; and Herod would have (over a year later) killed the children of two years, since he knew that the Child could not be older than the star which marked his birth.
If we were to only have Matthew’s account of the Nativity, we could easily be led to think that Joseph and his family fled to Egypt immediately after the Magi left. This, however, seems most improbable, since we know that they first went to the Temple for Mary’s purification (forty days after the Nativity) – and from here, they returned to Nazareth, as Luke tells us. Thus, we must understand Matthew to mean simply that sometime after the Magi life, but not necessarily immediately after they left, Joseph took his wife and the Child and fled to Egypt.
Now Herod did not immediately slaughter the Innocents either – but seems to have waited nearly two full years. And the reason for this delay is that he first thought nothing of the account which the Magi had given him, but presumed that they could not find any child and had not returned to him on account of being humiliated in having misinterpreted the star. However, after some time, Herod learned of how the shepherds had come to adore the Child and also of the rejoicing of Simeon and Anna. Yet, Herod had great difficulty in maintaining order in his kingdom (as is well known from secular history) — thus, he was slow to act against the Christ Child, for he knew that the massacre he had in mind could possibly start a revolt. After two full years, when he was in better standing with Caesar Augustus and had greater control of the district of Judea, Herod accomplished his evil scheme, killing all the children two years and under, since it had been two years since the star had passed.
Day 1: Christ is born. The angel addresses the shepherds. The shepherds come to the stable. The star first appears to the Magi.
Day 8: Christ is circumcised in a private home into which Mary and Joseph had been received.
Day 13: The Magi arrive in Bethlehem and adore Christ in the house where the Holy Family temporarily resides.
Day 40: The Presentation in the Temple. Then the Holy Family goes to Nazareth.
Perhaps a year later: Herod realizes he has been fooled and desires to kill the Child, but he cannot yet act on his desire. The angel tells Joseph to flee. The Holy Family flees into Egypt.
Nearly two years later: Herod gains enough power and control to murder the Innocents and also to quell any revolt which may come up.
Several years later (but before the Christ is twelve): Herod dies and the Holy Family returns to Nazareth.