2:1-2. Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of king Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Matthew makes of point of emphasizing that among those who were the first to witness the birth of the Messiah are pagans, non-Jewish Gentiles. Indeed, they are the only ones that he mentions explicitly. Thus from the start of his Gospel he makes radiantly clear the universal nature of Christ’s saving mission and the redemption that he has come to bring: it is not for the Jewish people only, but for all of humanity. But who are these “magi,” often translated as “wise men”? The Church has always understood them as the “first-fruits of the nations,” in other words, a symbol that all of humanity is the intended subject of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. Lew Wallace in his novel Ben Hur portrays them as representatives of the three great world religions/cultures outside of Judaism—Egyptian, Greek, and Hindu (we could add Buddhism here as well)—all drawn to the one God through the seeds of the Word, the seeds of divine Truth, present everywhere, and yet impelling hearts to the fullness of unity found only in Jesus Christ. Yes, all history, philosophy, and mystical aspiration direct hearts towards he who is the true Wisdom of God incarnate, and who does not despise making himself present wherever hearts are open to what is authentically good and true.
It is clear, in fact, that these mysterious men are “from the east,” east, that is, from Palestine, which would mean Arabia, Persia, or even further east to India and China. But the term here, magos, often translated as “wise man,” is thought to refer to the “Magians,” in other words, the Persian priestly caste. This would make sense geographically. But whether these men came from a diversity of eastern religions or only one, the significance is the same: they are the first-fruits of believers from the pagan nations, and among the first to come to worship the Christ-Child and to accept him as the true king. Indeed, by the very fact that they travel to “worship him” indicates that they are recognizing him as more than merely “the king of the Jews,” but rather acknowledging that Israel is in fact God’s first-born son, through whom all nations are meant to be saved. They are acknowleding that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22), but also that, in Jesus Christ, “the one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim 2:5), all people may be saved.
The tension inherent in the text is in fact deeply instructive: the first-born son rejects his Redeemer, whereas the surrounding nations acknowledge him, and thus become the first-fruits of salvation. And yet this salvation, in God’s plan, could not have come except in and through the first-born son, through whom God prepared for his entrance into this world. Saint Paul, in fact, was entranced by this mystery, and wrote about it at length in his letter to the Romans. He recognized that only through Israel was the Savior given to the world, and yet that this very people, in large part, rejected him; and yet when his message reached the Gentiles, they in large part accepted him. And thus in the early days of the Church, Christianity separated itself from temple Judaism and distinguished itself as its own religion, finding a home among the Gentiles and among those Jews who accepted Christ and the newness he brought. This was clearly providential, since, however much the redeeming activity of Christ was the fulfillment of all that Judaism aspired towards, and the consummation of God’s historical activity, the Church herself needed to be a new reality, founded wholly upon the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, and not on the paschal exodus of the Old Covenant, even though this latter prepared for and gave way to the former.
But Paul does not end with saying that the rejection of the Jews made way for the salvation of the Gentiles. He says, further, that the people of Israel too, his own people and the people among whom the Christ was born, shall come to believe, and thus to find the fulfillment for which they were all along thirsting. He expresses all of this by the image of a tree with branches, the living tree of God’s chosen people:
I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants. … Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified. … I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. … And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved. (Rom 9:1-7; 10:1-4; 11:1-2a, 11-20, 23-26a)
This passage is tremendously rich, and we cannot expound it at length here. But it is actually quite simple in its richness, and so let us only try to unveil the essence here: Saint Paul is taking the pulse of God’s redeeming plan in Christ, and saying with bold confidence that the gift of salvation brought in Christ is meant for all. And thus even the rejection of the people of Israel has not hindered the unfolding of his plan. Rather, by spreading salvation to the Gentiles, to the people who did accept Christ when his own chosen people in large part rejected him, God has already paved the way for the eventual inclusion of all of Israel also in the bosom of the Church through faith in Christ. As Paul clarifies: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy.” (Rom 11:29-31).
Yes, and the Church herself, in obedience to Scripture as God’s word to her and within her, is the custodian of this truth, a truth perhaps unpopular but profoundly beautiful: all of Israel shall be saved, since the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.* He knows how to save those whom he has chosen, and will not give up on his precious first-born son, on the first manifestation of his elected Bride, who has found fulfillment in the the Church, and yet still seeks to encompass the children of Israel, incorporated into the one Body through faith, which brings to fulfillment all the promises of God and brings to fruition the righteousness for which the entire Old Covenant aspires.
In response to all of this, what can we do? We can pray and act with wholehearted trust that “the full number of the Gentiles” may find and embrace Christ and the redemption that he brings, so that, when the time comes, the people of Israel themselves may find the Messiah for whom they have long awaited, and yet whom, at first, they did not recognize. And what beauty, what joy, for the people of God to be one again, Jews and Gentiles, reconciled and united in the one God, the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in whom “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:28).
*The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses it this way: “The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel”, for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” St. Paul echoes him: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles”, will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which “God may be all in all”. (par. 674)