LESSON 28: April 2008


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

212. Introduction. The spiritual sense and spiritual sub-senses of Matthew 2 are necessarily based on the literal sense, which I have presented more extensively elsewhere,3 but, since many are especially interested in seeing at this time the spiritual sense, I am undertaking to suggest a few examples here according to the neo-patristic method of interpretation as recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119). The following examples are taken largely from the Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas, to which I have added my own comments. The perception of the allegory of Christ and of his Church requires a use of the analogy of faith based upon solid belief in the historical truth of Sacred Scripture and an affirmation that the supernatural things and events presented in the Bible belong to the one continuum that we call “hard reality.” The tropology is the appropriation of the truth and holiness of Sacred Scripture to the souls of individual believers, and it is based upon a prior awareness of the pattern of supernatural virtues available to the sanctified Christian. The anagogy pertains to the Four Last Things of death, judgment, Heaven or Hell, and to the signature, or hallmark, of the Most Holy Trinity impressed here and there upon the sacred text.

213. Matt 2:1-2. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, . . . there came wise men (magi) from the East to Jerusalem. The word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and, in the allegory of Christ and his Church, the name signifies the Church, in which dwells Jesus eucharistically under the appearance of bread (Gregory the Great in the Catena, p. 70), and spiritually, because He is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 162). The Magi were the first of the Gentiles to come to adore Jesus, and they represent tropologically the many Gentiles who have come and continue to come into the Church over the span of history. Christians adore in faith the body of Christ, and they seek in hope to see Him in his divinity face to face in the next life.

214. Matt 2:3. When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Allegor­ically, Herod represents the Devil, who was greatly grieved by the calling of the Gentiles and by this new threat to his power over the people of this world (Leo the Great, Sermon 36, in the Catena, p. 69). Again, Herod represents the Devil attacking and killing those who are like babies in the sense that they are new and weak in faith and virtue and having only the first inspirations and good thoughts in their minds before they have been able to grow and become strong (Leo the Great, Sermon 2 “On the Epiphany”). Tropologically, Herod represents every man acting under the influence of the world, the flesh, and the Devil (Gregory the Great, Homily 10, cited in Cornelius, p. 82A).4

215. Matt 2:9. . . . and behold the star which they had seen in the East went before them until it came and stood over where the child was. Literal sense. The” star” was a luminous object in the atmosphere, and it came close above the house in which the divine child was (Ambrose in the Catena, p. 74). Allegorical sense. The star of the Magi, the star of Bethlehem, is a figure of Jesus, who arose out of Jacob through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus says: I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star (Rev 22:16). And it also represents the Virgin Mary, who is the Star of the Sea (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). The star leads the way to Jesus and to salvation, and the way is Jesus (cf. Ambrose, ibid.). “. . . and nations that knew you not shall run to you” (Isa 55:5). The star is a figure of the light of grace in Jesus, and the house is a figure of the Church, while Herod is a figure of the Devil. Whoever turns to the Devil loses the light of grace, but, when he turns away from the Devil, he regains this light leading to Jesus in the Church (cf. Remigius in the Catena, p. 75). Tropologically, the star of the Magi prefigures the light of faith and divine inspiration leading those who are sincerely searching for Jesus to a knowledge of the truth and to higher levels of goodness and holiness. Anagogically, the star represents the destiny of those who lead others to truth and holiness: But they that are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that instruct many to justice like stars for ever and ever (Dan 12:3). “He who has a taste for the things that are above . . . is in a sense a heavenly light. And while he preserves the brightness of a holy life, he shows to many the way to the Lord like a star” (Leo the Great, Sermon 3 “On the Epiphany,” quoted in Cornelius, p. 77A).

216. Matt 2:11. and entering into the house they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him. Literal sense. While seeing the child, they acknowledged Him as God (Pseudo-Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 76). Tropological sense. Those who truly find Jesus find Him in the house which is the true Church of Christ and always with Mary his mother. Those who truly adore Jesus also give special veneration to Mary his mother and the Mother of the Church. . . . and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. Prophetic sense. Isa 60:6: A multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah: all they from Sheba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming praise to the Lord. Allegorically. They brought gold as to a king (cf. Jer 23:5), frankincense as a sacrifice to God, and myrrh as for the embalming of a dead person (Gregory the Great in the Catena, p. 76). They brought myrrh as to one who was to die for the sins of all (Augustine, ibid.). While the Magi may not have understood the mystical significance of the gifts they brought, the same grace that moved them to give the gifts brought about their mystical meaning as well (Chrysostom, ibid.). The three gifts represent Jesus, who offered on the Cross the gold of his love for God the Father and for his fellow men, the incense of his submission to the Father, and the myrrh of his suffering and death (Cornelius, p. 81B). Tropologically, the three gifts represent in the devout believer the gold of an increase of wisdom and charity, the incense of prayer, and the myrrh of a mortified and uncorrupted life (Gregory the Great, Homily 10, in Cornelius, p. 80B). Again, the three gifts can represent the three principal kinds of good works: the gold represents the voluntary giving away of money and goods to the poor; the incense represents the prayer of those detached from the spirit of this world; and the myrrh represents the mortification of fasting and abstinence (Cornelius, p. 82A). Anagogically, the gold represents the price given by Jesus for our redemption from the power of the Devil; the incense signifies the large-scale ending of Devil-worship on earth; and the myrrh suggests the restoration of our bodies in the final resurrection (Maximus, Homily 3 “On the Epiphany,” cited in Cornelius, p. 82A). Again, the opening of their treasures may typify the profession from the hearts of believers of their faith in the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, or, for the verbal allegory, it may represent the three spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture (compare and contrast Anselm in the Catena, p. 77).

217. Matt 2:12. . . . they (the Magi) went back by another way to their own country . . . . Tropologically. This shows that, in order to return to the Paradise from which we originally sprang, we must walk in obedience to God (cf. Prov 4:27) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 204).

218. Matt 2:13. Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt . . . . Tropologically. In order to flee successfully from sin, it is necessary to shake off laziness (Eph 5:14) and have trust in the Virgin and her Child (Sirach 24:24) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 211). Trials and troubles are on the road to Heaven. God, as it were, weaves our failures and successes into a crown of glory (Chrysostom, in Cornelius, p. 84A).

219. Matt 2:14. Who arose and took the child and his mother by night and retired into Egypt . . . . Tropologically. The strong flee for a good reason, and not out of fear. Jesus was carried to Egypt also to teach us to take no account of exile, since we are pilgrims on our way to Heaven (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 28, in Cornelius, p. 84A).

220. Matt 2:15. That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ Literal sense. The prophecy is in Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a child, I loved him: and out of Egypt I have called my son. The prophecy in its literal sense applies to the children of Jacob, that is, of Israel, and is a statement made in reference to a past already accomplished, since the children of Jacob, the Israelites, had already long before been called out of Egypt. Compare this prophecy with that in Numbers 23:22. Allegorical sense. Jacob/Israel, called out of Egypt in the Exodus as represented by his descendants, is a type, or prefigurement, of Jesus (Jerome in the Catena), who is by nature the one true and only-begotten Son of God, whereas his followers become children of God through adoption into his Mystical Body and only to the extent that they bear a likeness to Him (cf. Aquinas, Commentary, no. 216). In the Old Testament prophecies, the coming of Christ and the call of the Gentiles are foreshown in such wise that the thread of history is never broken (Jerome in the Catena, p. 81). John Chrysostom points out that this kind of fulfillment is not unusual, because Old Testament prophecies are often said of some and fulfilled in others, and he gives as another example the prophecy of Jacob in Gen 49:7 regarding Simeon and Levi, which was fulfilled, not in them but in their descendants (Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 81).

221. Matt 2:16. . . . and (Herod) sending, killed all the male children that were in Bethlehem and in all the borders thereof, from two years and old and under . . . Literal sense. This slaughter of the innocents really took place. Some historical critics have objected that such a massacre would not have escaped the attention of historians of that time, but actually mass killings were rather common in those times, especially in the case of certain peoples. This King Herod was noted for the frequency and magnitude of his killings. Of his six sons, he had three put to death, and, knowing that he was no object of love among the Jews, just before his death he tried to make sure that there would be weeping at the time of his funeral by leaving orders that many noble Jews should be captured and killed on that occasion (Aquinas, Commentary, nos. 235 and 238). Note also that people can become so accustomed to the mass killing of humans that it becomes no longer noteworthy, such as is the case with tens of millions of human infants in the womb that are in these days being slaughtered therapeutically with no notice from historians and the secular press. Tropologically, these Holy Innocents represent all of the martyrs killed in their humility and innocence of heart, who in their lifetimes had turned and become spiritually like little children (Matt 18:3) (Bede in the Catena, p. 83), and, in the allegory of numbers, the age of two years of the infants may represent tropologically the supernatural virtues of love for God and neighbor (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 224), or anagogically, the intended attack of the Devil against the life of the incarnate Son of God, since the number two can represent the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

222. Matt 2:23. Literal sense. and he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled that he would be called a Nazorean. In answer to the objection that nowhere in the Old Testament is it stated that Jesus would be a Nazorean, Thomas Aquinas summarizes the speculations of some of the Fathers of the Church where he says that this prophecy can be gathered from several places, such as a) if the word Nazoraios is understood to mean “holy,” that is, consecrated and set apart (from the Hebrew root nazir (and a Nazirite was a “holy man”): then the prophecy occurs in Daniel 9:24, where it says that the holy one be anointed, or b) if the word Nazoraios is taken to mean “flowering” (from the Hebrew noun netser, meaning “branch” or “flower”), then the prophecy occurs in Isa 11:1, where it says that there shall go forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; again in Cant 2:1, where it is written I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 240). Compare these with Zech 6:12: Behold the man whose name is the branch, for he shall grow up in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. William F. Albright, in his thoroughgoing research into the possible origin of the name Nazareth (nazret), concluded that, in view of the linguistic phenomenon of “consonant shift,” either nzr or netser could be the original root.5 A third etymological possibility, also from the root nzr is the noun nezer, meaning “crown.” The tiara of the high priest of the Old Testament, on which was inscribed “holiness of the Lord,” was called nezer, that is, “crown of holiness” (Cornelius, p. 91B). Thus to David in Psalm 131 (132):17-18: There will I make a horn to sprout for David: I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. His enemies I will clothe with confusion, but upon him shall his crown (nizri) flourish.6

223. Literally speaking, Jesus is a Nazarene, a man from Nazareth. Allegorically speaking, Jesus is a Nazorean, the “holy man,” par excellence, in the sense that he has been preeminently “set aside,” and “crowned with holiness” as well as “conse­crated to the Lord” from his mother’s womb in many ways, such as, in his divine origin, in his virginal conception, in his hypostatic union, in his heavenward vocation, in his sacrificial mission, and in his saturation with the holiness of the Holy Spirit. Behind Matt 2:23 and behind the whole infancy narrative of Matthew is the allegory of Christ and of his Church. This is an extended metaphor which is not an analogy contrived after the fact, but is rather a spiritual dimension instilled by God from the beginning into the history of the events and into the meaning of the proph­ecies. Jesus was to be a man from Nazareth who fulfilled and exemplified the supposed (popular) origin of its name. Related to this fulfillment was the mission of Jesus to establish a spiritual Kingdom of God distinct from the common Jewish understanding of the same, which envisioned an earthly kingdom in which there was no distinction between the land, the people, and the religion.

224. Matt 2:23. It seems that the reader of Matt 2:23 is being challenged to find a profound spiritual meaning behind the surface of the text. The Tropological sense of this verse regards the appropriation of the truth and holiness of Jesus the Nazorean to the minds and hearts of his followers, who carry their crosses after Him on their way to heavenly glory, and the supernatural virtues that flower in their souls. All of the members of the Kingdom of God and of the Mystical Body of Christ have been set apart from the spirit of this world by their vocation to eternal life, and so they are all called to be Nazoreans of the Holy Spirit, and this title belongs in a particular manner to those who dedicate themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. “The word ‘Galilee’ means ‘transmigration’ and ‘Nazareth’ means ‘flower,’ because the more the Church transmigrates to heavenly things, so much the more does she abound in the flower of virtues’ (Rabanus, as quoted in Cornelius, p. 91A). Or the word “Galilee” means “circle” (Young’s Analytical Concordance) or “turning of the wheel” (Cruden’s Complete Concordance), because the more the faithful turn from earthly to heavenly things, so much the more do they abound in the flower of virtues. Again, the Virgin Mary is a descendant of David, and, in the supernatural fertility of her virginal soul, she is the Virgin of Virgins. The prophecy in Matt 2:23 was also fulfilled in her in the sense, not only that the word Nazareth is feminine in gender, but especially that Mary too was “consecrated to the Lord” from her mother’s womb (cf. Num 6:2), and she was “set apart” by reason of her immaculate conception free from any taint of Original Sin. She lived a life full of grace and virtue in her vocation to prayer and virginal chastity. Thus, on a spiritual level, Jesus was a Nazorean also in the sense that He was “from the Virgin Mary,” who received Him into her body and into her heart. This further relationship of the name Nazorean pertains to the special tropology of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157. Email: jfm@rtforum.org

2. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see J.F. McCarthy, “A Brief Commentary on Matthew 2 according to the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture” in Living Tradition 134 (March 2008).

3. See note two above.

4. Cornelius a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, edited by Augustinus Crampon (vol. 15 – on Sts. Matthew and Mark – Paris: Vivès, 1877).

5. Cf. W.F. Albright, “The names ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Nazoraean,’” in the Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946), pp. 399-400.

6. For fuller treatment of this prophecy in Matt 2:23, see the article, “Called by the Prophets a Nazorean (Matthew 2:23)” in Living Tradition 84 (November 1999). In paragraphs 15-17, I have listed 31 Old Testament parallels to these possible Hebrew roots of the names Nazareth and Nazorean.