JESUS UNDER THE LAW -- THE CIRCUMCISION
THE eighth day after birth was the customary time for the circumcision of the child. With this sacred ceremony Israelitism took possession of the newborn. It officially declared Him a true son of Abraham; and with the imprinting of the very title of His nobility in His flesh, it unconsciously shed the firstfruits of a Blood that was to regenerate the world. St. Luke, having given much space to the incidents that surrounded the circumcision of John the Baptist, is exceptionally brief in his mention of that of Jesus. It was no doubt because circumcision had a real importance for John, who was a man of the Old Testament, while for Jesus, the man of the New Creation, it had simply the value of a symbol. But the symbol is nothing when the living reality of which it is the figure is at hand.
Following the Jewish custom, Jesus was circumcised, not in the Temple nor in the synagogue, but in the stable itself, or rather in the house, that sheltered the mother and the child.1 This ceremony was performed in the bosom of the family. The father or even the mother was the ordinary minister. Thus Abraham, Isaac, Jacob do not yield this paternal right to any other; and mothers were put to death by Antiochus for having circumcised their young children2 To Joseph, then, the head of the Holy Family, fell the honour of marking on the child's body the traditional, distinctive sign of the people of God.
As he made the incision, the father said: "Blessed be Jehovah, the Lord! He has sanctified His beloved in His mother's womb and has written His law in our flesh. He marks His sons with the sign of the covenant, to give them the blessings of Abraham, our father." And those present responded in the words of the Psalmist: "May he live, whom thou hast taken for thy child."3
At this circumcision the newborn received a name. The choice lay with the father, and he never renounced this right. Here God had exercised His paternal prerogative in proclaiming in advance that His Son, born of Mary, should be called Jesus. This name, which in Hebrew is spelled Jehosuah, and abbreviated into Jeshuah, had a sacred meaning, as is indicated by its derivation. Hosee, the son of Nun, was named by Moses Josue, God saves, because of the providential mission he was to accomplish by guiding his people into the Promised Land. Since then this name had become common in Israel; but to bestow it intentionally and as a presage of an exceptional mission upon a child of the people, born in a manger, was the act either of a fool or of a prophet.
What human reason could be imagined for hoping, on the eighth day after his birth, that the obscure son of a Nazarene woman would save his people and the world? Assuredly none. Moreover, even at the time when the Evangelists made mention of the prophetic signification of this name in the Gospel story, who would have ventured to foretell the decisive influence, the healing force, the salvation, in a word, which the world would owe to Mary's Son? We must, then, recognize in this a categorical and well defined prophecy, formulated before the event, a prophecy whose fulfillment would be only the more clearly perceived, evident, and undeniable in the course of ages. Has it been fulfilled, and is it true for him who can read history, that Jesus saved the world yesterday, is saving it today, and will save it in all future time?
From the first another name was added to that of Jesus, to designate more fully the Savior of mankind: it was Christ or Anointed, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Meschiah.
The first, Jesus, was the name of the person, the latter the name of his official function. The former designates an individual in history; the latter his dignity as Messiah. Although the Old Testament grants the title of Anointed to kings, priests, or prophets, because all are consecrated by the symbolic unction, it was known that this designation was to belong really to the Desired of all nations.4 For, in Him, through the hypostatic union, human nature was to receive the most perfect consecration with which it can be honoured by Divinity.
Custom has gradually made inseparable these two names: Jesus and Christ. The Apostle Paul, especially, seems to have contributed to make them pass thus united into the language of the primitive Church. Since then, how many lips have uttered them in joy, in pain, in faith, in hope, before tyrants, in the praetorium, in the arena, on the funeral pile, despite allurements, in silence of the heart or in the whirl of life! We may say that this nameJesus Christhas been the password for virtuous, noble, heroic humanity, and under heaven there is no other given as the sign and means of salvation.
The ceremony of circumcision was performed in the presence of ten witnesses, who attested the child's official enrollment among the theocratic people. In the popular belief, Elias5, invisible, held his place among these witnesses. A seat of honour was prepared for him, and the young circumcised child was placed upon it for a moment to receive the blessing of the great servant of God. If it was the mission of this awful defender of Jehovah's rights to see that the patriarchal sign should mark in Israel the sources of life, until the true son of Abraham, the Messiah, should be come, he could now retire; his part was done. The son of the promise was born; circumcision was no longer necessary. Jehovah would henceforth know His people, not by any sign made upon the flesh, but by an invisible character impressed upon the soul. It was circumcision no longer, but faith that was to separate from the wicked the new people beloved of God.
THE VISIT OF THE MAGI
AFTER THE SIMPLE SHEPHERDS, SCIENCE COMES TO JESUS' CRIBTHE MAGI OF CHALDEATHE SIGN THEY BEHELD IN THE HEAVENSTHEIR ARRIVAL IN JERUSALEMTHE CRAFTY ATTITUDE OF THE AGED HERODTHE STAR GUIDES THE MAGI TO BETHLEHEM WHAT THEY DID THERETHEIR RETURN INTO THEIR OWN COUNTRY. (St. Matthew ii, 112.)
GOD had begun by drawing to the cradle of the newborn Child the poor and ignorant in the person of the shepherds; but He could not exclude from salvation the wise and the great of earth. These latter, indeed, hold a providential and important place in the life of mankind. God sought the firstfruits of them among the Gentiles, in the plains of Chaldea,6 whence He had taken Abraham, and among men who had devoted their lives to the search for truth, in the patient and logical study of nature.
To the shepherds, who kept watch in the mountains of Bethlehem, Angels had spoken the language of men; to the wise men of the East, who sought the signs of divine power in the firmament, a star spoke the language of heaven. Followers or even priests of the religion of Zoroaster, the Magi consecrated their lives to the study of astronomy and natural history in their relations to theology. They inquired into the secrets of all creation, and in Persia enjoyed the greatest consideration. Besides, to sustain themselves in public esteem, they did not fear to undertake long journeys, or to spend long vigils in study. Although distinguished from their fellowcitizens by their superiority, both intellectual and moral, they were kings only through an abuse of language.7 These priests, these philosophers wore no crown but that of science and religion.
God, therefore, wished to guide these seekers after truth to the cradle of the Redeemer. But little was needed to enlighten their souls. In the religion of the ZendAvesta, nothing was more common than the idea of redemption by the great Sosiosh, who was to triumph over evil and regenerate humanity. But very probably the reading of the sacred books had furnished clearer light, and had fixed in more precise form these doctrines, strangely made up, as they were, of error and truth. Undoubtedly, during the captivity in Babylon, the books of Moses and of the prophets had not escaped the notice of these wise men, so eager to learn and to judge the various systems of religion or of morality that obtained in the world. If they had read those lines wherein, with a touching cry of faith and love, the patriarchs and the prophets announced the coming Messiah, they could not fail to participate in the Messianic hopes that filled the Orient.
At the first sign, these religious souls, who had already turned toward Jerusalem8 as to the central point of the universal hope, were to understand the voice of heaven and start at once upon their journey to prove that God had fulfilled His promises. The sign, we have said, appeared in the firmament, the ordinary book read by their scrutinizing glance. According to many modern scientists, it was nothing else than an astronomical phenomenon, quite natural, but sufficiently extraordinary since it occurs only once in eight hundred years. Two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, they say, coincided in the sign of Pisces at three different times, in May, in September, and in December, and appeared as one star, astonishing in size and brilliancy, and called by the Magi the star of the Messiah.
Kepler's calculations, corrected by Ideler, have all but demonstrated9that this phenomenon must have occurred about the year of Rome 747; but it is most difficult to admit that this corresponds fully with the data of the Gospel. The star that appears is something new, something miraculous, which science does not explain; that is why the Magi are moved. It advances before the travelers and halts above the house where the Holy Family is lodged. Therefore it could not have been very high above the earth, and in its nature it must have resembled a star much less than it did the column of fire that guided the Israelites in the desert. It went from north to south, preceding the travelers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and consequently did not follow the regular evolution of our sidereal world. The Gospel calls it a star, but it is not unusual to see things qualified in the Gospel according to their appearance and not according to their reality. This luminous body, miraculously formed in the air by inflammable substances, might, indeed, have been a meteor. The question has even been asked, with some reason, if it were visible to any other than the Magi. Heavenly signs are ordinarily for certain privileged souls, and God, Who enlightens the just, leaves in the dark those whom His grace has not selected.
However that may be, while Kepler's hypothesis, excluding every kind of miracle, seems to involve the divine responsibility, and insinuates that there is realIy a relation of causality perfectly established between the heavenly revolutions and earthly events, the idea of a miraculous star does not at all authorize the conclusions of a ridiculous astrology. In the first explanation, one might believe that man's lot depends fatally on the star under which he was born; in the second, the star is born to honour man, who is superior to it. In this way, the star owes its destiny to Jesus, but Jesus does not owe His destiny to the star. Astrology must not take advantage of a fact that stands absolutely beyond its puerile deductions. In this case, from a miraculous phenomenon, which they behold, the Magi legitimately deduce the extraordinary event which they await. Balaam's prophecy attracted their attention particularly, and, interpreting it in a literal sense, they suppose that the star which has appeared in the firmament is the visible symbol of the star of salvation that is to rise out of Jacob. This is their belief, they wish to behold it, and they start upon their journey to the country of the Messiah.
Did their departure coincide with the birth of Jesus, or only with the appearance of the star? We do not know. In either case, as far as Gospel chronology is concerned, there is no need of entering upon the question of their journey and its length, for there was nothing to prevent the star from appearing before the event which it announced, or the Magi from beginning their pilgrimage soon enough to reach Bethlehem just when the king of the Judeans was born.
Tradition varies as to the number of these pious pilgrims. St. Augustine and St. Chrysostom thought that there were twelve; but the most common opinion is that of St. Leo the Great, who held that there were only three. This opinion is probably founded in the number of presents mentioned in the Gospel, and the symbolical meaning of this sacred number has made it forever popular. In fact, the legend gathered by the Venerable Bede gives us not only a description of them,10 but also gives us to understand that, from early times, these three travelers were looked upon simultaneously as the emblem of the three ages of life, and as the representations of the three great races that constitute humanity. In modern times, Christian art has been restrained within these data of common tradition; but the most antique paintings of the Catacombs represent indiscriminately two, three, and four Magi offering to Jesus their presents and their adoration.
The surprise of these pilgrims must have been great when they arrived in Jerusalem. They found the Holy City absolutely in ignorance of the religious anxiety that had brought them, Gentiles, through fatigue and danger, so far from their country. "Where is he that is born King of the Judeans?" they asked, impatiently. By thus emphasizing the royal title of the Messiah, they seek to make the natural subjects of this King blush for their indifference. Besides, they know well that, though coming from among the Judeans, the Messiah will nevertheless extend His Kingdom over the entire world. In coming to adore Him, they themselves are but the firstfruits of paganism as it bends beneath the scepter of Heaven's envoy.
If by their question they showed that they were certain of the birth of this King, they at once gave the reason of this certainty by declaring that they had beheld the Messiah's star in the heavens. This assertion promptly gave rise to a rumor throughout Jerusalem. Herod was informed of it, and he was even more deeply moved than his people. That any one should come to seek a new King of the Judeans in his capital and even in his palace, even after he had immolated his own children that he might not be supplanted, was somewhat strange and full of menace ! Yet this crafty old man at once veiled his terror, and prepared his plan of campaign for vigorous action, if the rumor should happen to be well founded. Out of deference to his illustrious visitors he at once convoked the Sanhedrim. This, in theological questions, was the oracle accepted by all. It was composed of the high priests, that is, the chiefs of the twentyfour sacerdotal families, the doctors of the law or renowned Scribes, the elders of the people or influential laymen, all, in number seventy, under the presidency of the High Priest. The question was: "Where is the Messiah to be born?" They respond: "In Bethlehem of Juda." The proof of it was written in the prophecy of Micheas.11 "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." Herod then received the Magi in private audience and communicated this information to them. At the same time he inquired the exact time when the star first appeared. If, later on, he is obliged to defend himself against a redoubtable infant, he shall have taken every means to discover him. For the time being, he judged that he could do nothing better than overlook the faith of these pilgrims and pretend, by simulating perfect indifference, that he attached no importance to these chimerical reports. True, it would have cost him but little trouble to send men to Bethlehem to gain direct information, but that would favor the popular emotion, might, perhaps, provoke an armed resistance beside a cradle which superstition would wish to protect, and, in any case, would lend credence to the possibility of such an event. But this possibility alone was for him a real danger. The sceptic judged, therefore, that he had better ridicule the pilgrims, and leave them to follow their own way, as he would in treating with credulous and foolish people. It was, as it seems, the best way to hush up the affair, and, at the same time, if, perchance, there were a conspiracy, to follow up at leisure all its ramifications without awakening public attention. Nevertheless, he recommended to the Magi to continue their search, beseeching them to return when they had found the child, and to inform him of it. He himself would go to Bethlehem to adore Him, that is to say, to kill Him.
This attitude on the part of Herod, full of irony and scepticism, as well as the indifference of the Sanhedrim, must have wounded the religious souls of the Magi and filled them with discouragement. They, foreigners, had come, in spite of numberless obstacles, to salute the new King; and the Judeans, the people of the promise, at first ignorant of and then disdaining the great tidings, did not even dream of following them to honour His cradle! If these latter did not believe in the fulfillment of the prophecies they officially guarded, would the Gentiles, to whom they were not addressed, accord them any greater importance ?
Meanwhile, the greater part of the day having been consumed in seeking or in awaiting the responses of the Sanhedrim, or in procuring the audience with Herod, the Magi were able to resume their journey only at a late hour. In the Orient they prefer to travel by night, but this time there was a special reason for following this custom, namely, the hope of seeing the guiding star again appear in the firmament. As a matter of fact, as they went forth from Jerusalem the miraculous star suddenly shone out before them as if inviting them to pursue their journey, and offering to guide them. After an hour and a half of traveling on a good road, through the mountains of Judea, they came to Bethlehem, where the star halted, indicating, by its emission of luminous rays, the dwelling of the newborn Child. It was no longer the stable of the khan, but a house properly so called. They entered; the Child was with Mary His mother, both illumined with heavenly beauty. The Magi prostrated themselves in token of their veneration, and adored Jesus. "When two men," says Herodotus, "meet on a road in the Orient, it is easy to determine their respective dignity. If they are on equal footing, they embrace by way of salute; if one is inferior to the other, he prostrates himself and adores his superior." Here the superiority of the Child they look upon12 was undeniable, but their homage had in it something deeper than a mere avowal of respect or dependence. It was eminently religious, and without grasping, perhaps, the whole theological notion of this Emmanuel ChildGod Whom they contemplated, they nevertheless directed the expression of their veneration to the MessiahKing. The threefold offering they brought Him, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, although only the usual presents in Chaldea, appear to many to acknowledge more particularly in Him the King, the God, and the Man. At all events, the revelations Mary made to the pious visitors, during their stay in Bethlehem, dispelled the last of the clouds that enveloped these honest, generous souls. Why, then, with faith being strengthened more and more by the wonderful stories of the Holy Family, and with God rewarding the human merits of these courageous pilgrims, should not the belief of the Magi be as deep as that of Mary and Joseph?
The striking contrast they found between the interior of the dwelling of Bethlehem, bright with moral beauty and supernatural life, and the somber palace of the tyrant of the Jews must have completed the woeful impression of scepticism, incredulity, and malice which Herod had made in their hearts. Therefore the crafty monarch's recommendation to return through Jerusalem to bring news of the child, seemed to them fraught with peril. God strengthened them in this impression by a dream in which He plainly warned them to return into their country, not through Jerusalem, but by another route.13
They obeyed this command, and departed to bear the Good Tidings in their own land. Thus fell, at the first appearance of the Messiah, the barriers that had surrounded the worship of the true God in Palestine. All nations were invited to join in one flock under one shepherd. Men of the East, seers of Chaldea, go to your homes and proclaim that the nations are to unite at last in the holy brotherhood of one only religion; there are no longer either Jews or Gentiles, or Greeks or Barbarians; henceforward we shall know only Christians !
1 According to St. Matthew, the Star of the Magi stopped above the house where the Child was, and then the Magi visited mother and Son. II, 11.
2 II Mach., ch. vi
3 Hieros., Berakot, fol. xiii 1.
4 Psalm lxi, 1; St. Luke iv, 18.
5 Buxtorf, Synagoga Judaica, lib. iv.
6 The text says that they came from the East, apo anatolwn, that is, the countries that extend from Palestine to the Euphrates. The word Magi, if derived from the Pehlevi Mogh, signifies priest, and if derived from the Sanskrit Mahat,megas, magnus, it means great. In either case history tells us that the Magi played an important part in the Assyrian Empire. After the decadence of various dynasties, they still remained powerful in the country, and even if they had spread into Arabia and into Egypt, it is no less true that, according to the usual meaning of the words, by the East the Gospel indicates Persia or Babylonia, the ordinary country of the Magi. (Cf. Lenormant, La Magie chez les Chaldeens, Paris, 1874, and W. Upham, The Wise Men, New York, 1873.)
7 This error is due to the false interpretation of Psalm lxxi, 10, Reges Tharsis, etc. The adoration spoken of here is not that of the Magi, but the homage the entire world gives to the Messiah. For Tharsis and the Isles were very probably European lands.
8 Numbers xxiv, 17.
9 See Kepler, De J. C. Vero Anno Natalitio (Frankfort, 1614), Ideler Handbuch der Chronologie, ii, 339. For the contrary, astronomically, see Smith Dictionary of the Bible, under the word Star, and vol. ii, D. 1375.
10 "Primus dicitur fuisse Melchior, qui, senex et canus barba prolixa et capillis, aurum obtulit Regi Domino. Secundus, nomine Gaspar, juvenis imberbis, rubicundus, thure, quasi Deo oblatione digna, Deum honoravit. Tertius fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthassar nomine, per myrrham Filium hominis moriturum professus."Bede, De Collectaneis.
11 Mich. V,2.
12 Matt. ii, 11, says: Kai pesontes prosekunhsan auty.
13 They came most probably by the road from Damascus to Jerusalem, and must have returned by the road through the desert to the south of the Dead See.
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