Adoration of the Magi

When 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 newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”

When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.

Matthew 2:1-12

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli; Tempera on panel; 111 x 134 cm; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli; Tempera on panel; 111 x 134 cm; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This Sunday we celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord, that is, the manifestation or appearance of the Lord in human form. The first mention of this feast day is by the Roman author Ammianus Marcellinus in AD 361. It is celebrated on January 6th or the Sunday between the 2nd and 8th of the month. Epiphany signals the end of the Christmas season and the start of Ordinary time. In the Western Church we commemorate the Adoration of the Magi on this feast, while in the Eastern Church the emphasis is on the baptism of Jesus.

The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, painted in 1475-6, was commissioned by a banker with ties to the wealthy and powerful Medici family in Florence. We see several of the Medici portrayed in this work, including Cosimo de Medici, kneeling as one of the Magi in front of the Virgin Mary, with his sons as the other two Magi and his grandsons as bystanders. The figures are arranged in a pyramidal composition, with onlookers arrayed at the base in contemporary Renaissance costumes and a variety of poses and gestures. The figure in yellow at the bottom right, staring out at us, is believed to be the artist himself. The Holy Family is situated at the apex of the pyramid to indicate their lofty status above the rest.

As I contemplate this work with the eyes of faith, I note first the quiet satisfaction of Mary and Joseph as they look upon the baby Jesus.  While Mary calmly holds the infant on her lap, Joseph rests his head upon his hand so that he may gaze at the child more intently. In my own life, do I take adequate time out from my busy day to rest and gaze upon My Lord in prayer and quiet meditation?

The serene attitude of the Holy Family contrasts with the crowd of onlookers, some of whom appear to shift restlessly or to chat and gesture with their neighbor and seem oblivious to the importance of the scene before them. Do I, too, allow distractions to keep me from being attentive to my relationship with the Lord and to his Holy Presence in my life? The stance of the figure at the bottom left seems to indicate he is rather too puffed up with his own self-importance to pay much attention to a mere baby. When have I considered myself and my own worldly needs and wants to be more important than my devotions? More important than helping others? Am I oblivious to the face of Jesus in my neighbor?

The three Magi have gifts to offer the newborn king. They have brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, valuable treasures all, carried from far away. The Magi in black has reached out to kiss the foot of this tiny king, holding it tenderly as he kneels in adoration, his gift set down before the mother and child. The two other Magi are glancing at each other as if deciding whose turn will be next. They are both eager to lay their gifts before this king for whom they have traveled great distances. They are overjoyed at the chance to do him homage! Am I overjoyed to give my Lord the homage that is his due? Do I feel joy when I attend church? What treasure do I have to offer to God? Are my gifts being offered to the Lord? How can I humbly offer up my gifts, talents, and treasure to serve God and others? The Magi left their homes and countries to seek the light and knowledge of God. Do I willingly step outside of my comfort zone to seek God and to bring the light of Christ to others?

Lord, help me to recognize my own gifts and to willingly, even joyfully, lay them at your feet. Help me to recognize Jesus in the face of others. Help me to leave my comfort zone in order to seek you and to serve others. Amen.

What about you? As you contemplate this image, what other thoughts or prayers come to mind? What are your gifts and how can you share them? As the new year begins, how can we use this painting and text to help us use our treasures in the service of God?

Here are some other masterpieces of this subject, set to Handel’s Hallelujah chorus from Messiah (of course!).

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