Thomas Reese on the Story of the Three Magi

“Adoration of the Magi” by Fra Angelico, circa 1445. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


The first time I watched Netflix’s “The Two Popes,” I hated it. Watching through the eyes of a journalist, I regarded the movie as a total fiction — Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did not come to Rome to submit his resignation and Pope Benedict XVI did not tell the cardinal he was planning to resign.

I was upset when Benedict was portrayed unfairly as confessing that he did not do anything about the sex abuser and founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel. In truth, before he became Benedict, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was the only one in the Vatican who pressed to investigate Maciel, and when he became pope, Benedict forced Maciel into a retirement of prayer and penance.

The second time I watched the film, two days before the Epiphany, I relaxed and accepted it as a work of fiction that portrays two men who have serious disagreements and yet are able to talk about them. They grow in respect for one another and become friends even if they still disagree. This is an important message for the church and the world at large.

It never happened, but it teaches us a truth about human life.

As I celebrated Epiphany Sunday (Jan. 5), I reflected on how much the story of the Magi is like the story of the two popes.

Scripture scholars do not consider the story of the three Magi to be historically true; rather they see it as conveying a theological or spiritual truth. We are asked to be open to the true message of the Magi story and not be distracted by trying to figure out the astrophysics of the star of Bethlehem. (Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark has a wonderful short story, “The Star,” about a Jesuit astronomer and space traveler whose faith is challenged when he discovers the origin of the star.)

For the early Christians, the miracle of the Magi story is not the star that moves through the night. Rather the miracle is that salvation is being offered to the Gentiles. For the Gentiles this was good news, but for the early Jewish followers of Jesus this news was shocking. It would be like us hearing that salvation is being offered to extraterrestrials.

It is a serious mistake to see the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke as simply children’s stories before we get to the meat of the gospel that is the teachings of Jesus. The infancy narratives use imagination, symbols and stories to summarize and present to us the heart of the gospel message.

The life and teachings of the adult Jesus are anticipated in the infancy narratives: his special relationship to God as his father, his identification with the poor and oppressed, his openness to the Gentiles, his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, his persecution by political and religious authorities, his role as the new Moses and the new king of Israel — all these and more are anticipated in the infancy narratives.

In the story of the Magi, we see some of these themes. We see the Gentiles going out of their way to find Jesus; we see the opposition to Jesus from the political and religious establishment, even though they have Scripture to tell them that he is the Messiah.

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Source: Religion News Service