Holy Spirit

 ACTA COMMENTARY

LECTIONARY

THE SEASON OF CHRISTMASTIDE

THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

Download >>> Epiphany of the Lord 

READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 60:1-6

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 72:1-2. 7-8. 10-13. R/. cf. v.11

A reading from the letter to St Paul to the Ephesians
3:2-3. 5-6

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew
2:1-12

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There has hardly been a time when the Christian Church has not been in crisis. But however many crises have beset the community of Christians throughout its history, no crisis compares with that of the first. For that crisis was within a hair’s breadth of ending God’s enterprise almost as soon as it had got off the ground. Today’s feast, the Epiphany of the Lord, is the celebration of decisions that saved the day and ensured that the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ was not a hole-in-the-wall affair. We are here because Christians talked and talked and talked again. Hard positions were softened. Compromises were agreed. Thank God, and the dignity of serious debate, at the end of the day, a decision was made that made our faith possible.

The Crisis

Within the Roman Empire Jewish people had a very important dispensation from all that was imposed by imperial authority on everyone else. Jews were allowed to practise their faith and were not required to join in the religious activities otherwise imposed by Roman decree. Throughout history Jewish people had fought for the right to live their faith. It was won in conflict after conflict, in defeat after defeat. Sometimes conquering powers conceded religious tolerance in order to save the expense of war and to make in easier to exact heavy taxation. The Romans were no more tolerant than Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, or Greeks. They were equally efficient and equally ruthless. Ask what the Romans did for the world and the answer comes from the north of England when a local leader named Calgacus revolted against the power of Rome that had reached into that part of this green and pleasant land. The Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law (a man named Agricola) ran Briton for his imperial masters, recorded the slogan with which that brave Geordie opposed the might of Rome. Of the Romans, he said,

They create a desert and call it peace.

The Jewish people during the lifetime of Jesus and for centuries after his death had to live with that and pay their taxes. There were always legions in the area to “keep the peace”. Pontius Pilate and his ilk were not collecting for the Red Cross. They were where they were to rule and to keep the natives quiet while they paid up. The point of the oppression was to enable the fat cats in Rome to live a very prosperous, comfortable, and safe existence. Slavery kept the oils of everyday life running smoothly. Historians reckon that the population of Rome at the time of Jesus was probably in the region of one and a half million, a million of whom were slaves. Incidentally, it is important to realise that the language spoken in Rome when Christians turned up there, was Greek, the common language throughout the Middle East. You will recall that Paul wrote his letter to Roman house-churches in Greek. Greek remained the language of Rome for most of the next three centuries. The language of the Lord’s Supper celebrated in Rome was exclusively in Greek. Latin was the language of the upper class Roman elite. The poet Horace complained that you couldn’t get a girl in Rome who spoke Latin.

The crisis that beset tiny Christian communities in Palestine and beyond was caused by Jewish belief in one God and not the myriad of gods that “unclean” pagans worshipped. Their one God had chosen one people to worship the one, true God. This privileged people were to be uncontaminated by the world of idolatry all around them. They were a chosen to serve, as no others did, the God of their fathers and mothers in this world. All other peoples were unclean, that is, unacceptable to God. As much as possible, God’s one people were “to keep themselves unstained from the world”.

Yet we are given to understand by St Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus had determined that his God-given mission was to the whole world:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:19-20

How could devout Jews, even if they believed that Jesus was their Messiah, believe that unclean pagans were embraced by God and invited to share in the blessings of God’s kingdom? Many Jews who believed in all that Jesus stood for were willing to go halfway. Pagans who professed to believe in Jesus could be admitted to the community of Christians if they became Jews. Pagan Gentiles who sought to become Christians would have to accept the food regulations that were routine in Jewish kitchens. They must limit association with Gentiles insofar as that was possible. They must not, for example eat with pagans. And men would have to be circumcised. The message of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who gave energy to the followers of Jesus were God’s gifts to Jews—and only to Jews. Christian communities had in essence to be Jewish communities.

Matthew

Peter and Paul, with God’s help, resisted this “Jews only” version of God’s enterprise in sending his Son “to dwell amongst us”. But even these two had a hard time persuading their brothers and sisters in the Christian movement that “the God who so loved the world” (John3:16) loved the whole world, warts and all.

I have quoted above the command of the Risen Jesus to the eleven disciples to teach all nations. Luke’s Gospel spells out the same command, in different words, to be sure, but the heart of the message is the same:

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.
Luke 24: 44-49

If everything was so clear from the very beginning, it is difficult to understand how the crisis developed in the first place. But Matthew and Luke wrote at the end of the first century when there was greater clarity on many things that Jesus taught. Christians can only plumb the depths of what God intends for this world by discussion, argument, and prayer, and above all, by listening to the story told again and again. It takes many tellings—and much praying—to come to the meaning of it all. From the first days after the ascension of the Lord those on whom tongues of fire descended were filled by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and with the greatest enthusiasm. But they were not provided with total clarity on every issue (nor are we to this day). The matter of who could be admitted to the company of Christians was going to be highly contentious, divisive, and bitter. Even though the matter had been settled when Matthew wrote his Gospel, we can trace in his story the bones of the debate.

Take Peter’s first speech immediately after the coming of the Holy Spirit, as written in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Notice who he is addressing:

… Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words”. Acts 2:14

A very exclusive audience. In his speech he addresses “Men of Israel” (2:22) and he ends his sermon with these words:

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Acts 2:36

There isn’t much in that speech about pagans, about those outside the house of Israel. Everything he says is directed to his “brothers and sisters” (2:29 and 37). His final word is this:

For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.
Acts 2:39

That “afar off” refers to Diaspora Jews, the communities of Jews scattered all over the Middle East, south into Egypt and west as far as Rome.

Yet there had been intimations in their Scriptures that God had an outstretched arm that was determined to embrace all humanity. The intention of God may not be on every page of the Old Testament. But it is there. Read, meditate, and pray Psalm 96 for there you will discover the mind of God:
Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous works among all the peoples!
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendour and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the LORD in the splendour of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.

In our Gospels we meet with the struggle to come to a clear understanding of what God intended for all humanity. What did Jesus preach? What needed to change if the mission of Jesus was to extend to all God’s children?

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus has identified twelve disciples to be apostles, he sends them out on a trial mission. But notice the instructions Jesus gives to these apprentice apostles:

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.”
Matthew 10:5-7

Then follows a lengthy instruction on the difficulties and dangers of aligning themselves with Jesus, doing what he does, and teaching what he teaches. Yet in Matthew they do not actually go out on this temporary mission (as they do in Mark 6:7:13). So how does Matthew get his apostles from a proposed temporary mission to Jewish people to a worldwide outreach to “all nations”? The answer is worked out in Matthew and we can identify the clues in the story that point to God’s purpose in sending his Son into our world.

First, the angel who speaks to Joseph outlines the work to be done by Mary’s child:

But as he [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:20-21

He will save his people? Not any other peoples? Jews only? But then we learn that wise men from the east have been led by God’s star to worship the King of the Jews and to give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So non-Jews, pagan men of wisdom, identify the child as King of the Jews and they worship him and their worship is true worship for, like Joseph, they are warned in a dream and guided safely home under heavenly direction.

So both Jew and Gentile are told who and for what purposes this child has been born into our world. Yet the story Matthew tells has to come to the cross of Jesus, to persecutions and betrayals before God’s mission is understood. For Jesus says,

… this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Matthew 24:14

What we see in Matthew’s Gospel is the struggles to understand that God’s kingdom must come to the Jewish world and from that faith to the whole world. But all this will not be done in a day. It is Matthew who reminds us of the prayer Jesus taught those who listened:

Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.

But what we discover in a diligent reading of Matthew, and in the other Gospels, each in its own way, is the drama. Years after the crisis was solved, though not to everyone’s satisfaction, Matthew dramatised the story of the debate. But in the stories of how Peter and Paul came to realise the truth of the matter we can see the blood on the ground. We can see the pain and the passion of the greatest crisis Christian communities faced in our entire history.

Peter.

First, Peter. There he is in the Acts of the Apostles and winning many Jewish listeners to turn to Jesus. There is opposition, argument, and imprisonment. But there are miracles, too, healings as Jesus healed. Gradually, Peter is moving from a concern to win Jewish hearts to Jesus, to a determination that all hearts must be brought to the same place of love. When he healed a cripple invoking the name of Jesus his preaching began to hold out hope for all peoples. Yes, he preaches to “You men of Israel”. But his homily ends up with a startling conclusion:

You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed’. God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. Acts 3:25-26

But Peter needed more convincing.

Making our way through St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we will, after many stirring events, come to Cornelius (read Acts 10 and 11). He was a Roman centurion, an experienced soldier (you had to be to become a commanding officer). He had been attracted to Jewish faith and “feared God”. Not only that, he gave alms generously and prayed continually to God. An angel of the LORD appeared to Cornelius and explained to him that his alms-giving and his prayers had been heard and God decided it was time for Cornelius to send for a man named Peter. Now remember Cornelius was not a Jew.

God then turned to Peter, the other half of the story, and gave him a vision of a sheet full of animals and birds, and creepy-crawlies. When he was ordered to eat, he protested that as a devote Jew he was not going to eat a meal of unclean animals. But the voice in the vision protested:

What God has made clean, do not call common.

Then if you read the rest of the story for yourself, you will learn what Peter learned and you will witness the Holy Spirit descending on the household of Cornelius just as the Spirit had descended on all those devote Jews who were huddled in that upper room.

Yet, as time went on and Christian faith spread beyond the confines of Palestine, Peter forgot all that God had taught him and sadly reverted to a Jews only policy.

Paul

Saul was a very clever, very well educated Jew and had a deep understanding of his Jewish faith. He knew his Jewish theology - with a Pharisee slant - and he hated Christians. He was the one who held the coats when they were stoning Stephen. He was the one who set off for Damascus in Syria to destroy any Jews who had adopted faith in Christ Jesus. And we know what happened. He came to believe what he had come to destroy.

His name in Aramaic was Saul but he is known by the Greek form of his name. He was born in the city of Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, and he became the greatest pastor and theologian in the history of the Christians churches. He believed passionately that God intended to embrace the whole world in sending his Son “to save his people from their sins”, as the angel in Matthew proclaimed to Joseph.

Paul and companions travelled extensively in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and founded tiny communities of Christians. Their missionary practice was to go first to a Jewish synagogue. As often happened, their message fell on deaf ears and they turned to any Gentiles they managed to interest in their strange story. They set up a network of little house-churches across the province and, moving west, in some cities on the Greek mainland.

Of course, the issue of whether God intended love, mercy, and forgiveness to be proclaimed to everyone or just to Jews came up again and again. Luke’s records a defining moment in the controversy:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
Acts of the Apostles 15:1-2

Paul was an astute politician. On their way from Antioch to Jerusalem he and Barnabas canvassed any Christian communities they encountered on the way:

So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.
Acts of the Apostles 15:3

They were welcomed by the Jerusalem Christians and by the apostles and elders as they told of all God had done through their missionary endeavours in Asia Minor. But there was strong opposition:

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.
Acts of the Apostles 15:5

The apostles and elders engaged “in much debate”. Peter stood up and defended the liberal policy, appealing to his own experience of God’s guidance in the matter of admitting Gentiles to baptism:

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Acts of the Apostles 15:7-10

The assembly then listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related “what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). Then the man who was the leader of the Jerusalem communities of Christians, James, the brother of the Lord, rose and said,

Brothers, listen to me.

He proceeded to settle the matter with a judgment that Gentiles who turned to God should not be unduly burdened. However, in the interests of peace, they should not eat of any meat disposed of by pagan temples, they should not engage in any sexual immoral practices common in the pagan world, and they should abstain from the meat of animals that were not slaughtered according to Jewish practices. Then the whole community chose ambassadors to be sent to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas and a letter confirming the Jerusalem decision. When they arrived and read the letter, “the whole congregation rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31). With much relief Paul and Barnabas continued teaching and “gospelling” many others in “the word of the LORD” throughout the city of Antioch. Terrific! The battle has been won! God is for everyone! Well, no, unfortunately.

Paul and Peter

The battle had been won but not the war. It all went wrong when Peter turned up in Antioch . We need to appreciate that Antioch in Syria was the third most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. It was a centre for the most amazing young Christian churches. Greek-speaking Jews who had become Christians in Jerusalem, fled to Antioch in the wake of the death of St Stephen. A paragraph from Acts summarised very well what happened:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen, travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Acts 11:19-26

The Hellenists Christians, more used to living among Gentiles, did not insist on circumcision and the other Jewish practices demanded by more traditionalist Jewish Christians. Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch and they both worked there for a whole year with considerable success. Then Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey. But, as we have seen, dissension broke out and this led to the conference in Jerusalem which attempted to settle the matter. It was after the matter seemed to be settled that Peter went to Antioch.

When he arrived in that great city Peter experienced vibrant young churches. But he also encountered Jewish Christians who did not accept the Jerusalem decision and he joined them and ceased to meet with the more liberal churches. Strangely, Barnabas did the same. Paul confronted Peter in anger and denounced his duplicity, as he spelled out in his letter to Galatian Christians:

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Galatians 2:11-14

Paul left Antioch never to return and we know that wherever Paul went after these sorry events, he did not impose a Jewish life-style on converts. What happened subsequently in Antioch may be deduced from the Gospel according to Matthew. It was written in that city and it bears the scars of what, from Paul’s point of view, was a corruption of the gospel of God. Matthew it was who managed to knit together the Jewish past of Christianity to a Gentile future. Briefly what Matthew did was to invite the Magi to worship the new-born child at the beginning of his Gospel and at the end to send out eleven apostles to teach all nations. And, Matthew assures us, with them went Jesus, determined to remain with those who proclaimed his gospel to the whole world “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:1-20).

If Paul and Matthew (and those who shared their vision of what God intended when sending his Son) had not won, Christianity would have remained a sect within Judaism and we would never have heard the story of Jesus of Nazareth. That is why the Feast of the Epiphany is, after Easter Sunday, the greatest of all Christian feasts.

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
The word of the LORD.

 

The Book of Isaiah spans three hundred years and in its making we meet the trials and tribulations that beset God’s people from the days of Assyrian invasion to the hopes that came from the return from the exile in Babylon. New hopes filled every heart, as Ezra and Nehemiah set about building a new future for a smaller but renewed people. The Book of Isaiah in chapters 60-62 sings of salvation and promises of a glorious future fill the air. Not just Israel but the whole world will be united. The nations of the earth will come to know and to worship the God of Israel. The glory of God, that is, the Presence of God, will be seen and will light up the earth. The nations shall come bearing gifts and the praises of the LORD will be proclaimed throughout the world.
Christians, from the days of Paul and the days of Matthew have taught the world that what the last pages of the Book of Isaiah announced has come to earth in the light that shone over the Bethlehem and the star that guided pagans to the house where they saw the child and his mother.


Responsorial Psalm Psalm 72:1-2. 7-8. 10-13. R/. cf. v.11

R/. Let all nations bow to you, O LORD.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. R/.

In his days may the righteous flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more!
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. R/.

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him. R/.

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.

R/. Let all nations bow to you, O LORD.

 

Psalm 72 may very well be a coronation hymn. While the titles given to some psalms in our Bible may not necessarily be a definite indication of the author, the designation of this psalm (“Of Solomon”) may be authentic. It just might be a psalm composed for the coronation of King Solomon. The psalm sings of virtues to be desired in a king and those virtues are lauded in this psalm in honour of King Solomon. The Bible praises Solomon for his wisdom and we can recall his judgement concerning the child claimed by two prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28). Today’s responsorial psalm echoes Solomon’s concern for justice:

And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. 1 Kings 3:28

The coronation gifts mentioned in the psalm echo gifts given to King Solomon. From Tarshish:

Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. 1 Kings 10:22

From Sheba:

Never again came such an abundance of spices as these that the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
1 Kings 10:10

But particular prayer is offered that God may endow the king with God’s justice and God’s righteousness so that he may judge his subjects with God-like justice and especially that the poor may be established in God’s righteousness as the new king acts wisely. Especially must the king make the poor his particular concern. As the psalm prays, he must care for the poor, pity the weak, and save the lives of the needy.

This is what the nations will experience when they take Jesus of Nazareth to be their king, when their lives are given into the hands of God’s Son for safekeeping.

 

A reading from the letter to St Paul to the Ephesians
3:2-3. 5-6

[I assume] that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation… [that is] the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the world in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The word of the LORD.

It seems unlikely that St Paul wrote the Letter to Ephesian Christians. It is evident that this letter is dependent on the Letter to Colossian Christians as it quotes it time and again. The style is quite unlike that of the authentic letters of Paul. Even the title address “to the Ephesians” seems to be a later addition to this epistle. However, while its teaching is not quite in line with the heart of Paul’s teaching, it is a legitimate expansion or development of Paul’s thought. One might put it this way. Whereas St Paul never speaks of the Church as a universal body, always addressing local churches, Ephesians is concerned to describe the universal Church (insofar as it was universal in the latter half of the first century) as a mystery final revealed to the whole of humanity.

The Greek word musterion, is translated in our reading as ‘mystery’ (“This mystery is that …”). This is somewhat misleading. When Christians think about ‘the mystery of the Trinity’, it is often with the implication that it is a matter that cannot be understood, something beyond human comprehension. But the word in ancient times often meant ‘a revealed secret’, even if that revelation was only given to people initiated into some cult. There were those in the know and outsiders who did not know. This sentence is proclaimed to us today:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

This is not something we are told but cannot understand. It is a glorious revelation of what was not previously fully known or fully understood. The joy is that Christians can declare that Gentiles, pagans, non-Jews, everyone, are (not, may be, or can be, but are) recipients of all that was promised to the Jewish people. Everyone is heir to all that was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants. The secret is now open to all, everywhere and in every time. What came to our world in Jesus of Nazareth is gospel, good news, for all humanity. The epiphany, the mystery that is revealed, is that God’s love, expressed in his Son, is for every human being. Once again, Pope Francis has his finger on God’s pulse:

To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity” . To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person had been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a
social dimension because “God in Christ redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men” . To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds”.

These words of Pope Francis explain what the reading from Ephesians proclaims to us today. Indeed, his words explain the whole of the letter to Ephesians and the whole of what St Paul called ‘the gospel of God’. The duty imposed by God on his Church, a duty imposed on every parish, is to proclaim God’s love for everyone and for all time. The burden placed on us all is to tell people that God loves them.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew
2:1-12

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel. ’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Gospel of the LORD.

 

The problem St Matthew faced was that communities of Christians in Antioch were at each other’s throats. To be embraced by the love of God spoken to us in Jesus, did you have to become a Jew? Is it possible that God’s love is for all people and not dependent on the admirable practices of a people whose whole history bore the light of God’s love in a dark world? Jesus was a Jew. Did not all who wished to follow him not have to become Jewish?

Matthew believed what Paul before him came to see. The witness that Jewish faith gave to the world, even when subject to persecution, exile, and bitter defeats, prepared the way. The way of God, spoken through their prophets and prayed in their psalms, was that this people was to be a light to the nations:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
Isaiah 49:6

Israel’s ministry was not to be confined to saving itself. It was, in God’s intention, to be a light to the nations “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.

What Matthew sought to do was to preserve the witness of God’s people, but to instil into everyone that God’s purpose was always “that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. That is why Matthew brought his Magi to Jerusalem and then to the house where “they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11). They “fell down and worshipped him”. This falling down was a full prostration on the ground, not a half-hearted jerk of the knee. Matthew is very careful with the verb ‘worship’. Of course, one could and would fall down in worship before emperors and kings. But Matthew is careful deliberately to use the word almost exclusively of worship of Jesus. It is worthwhile reviewing the situation:

And coming down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold! a leper, coming up, was worshipping him, saying, “Lord, if you will you can make me clean”. Matthew 8:2

While talking of these things with them, behold! a ruler, approaching him, was worshipping him, saying, “My daughter has just died. But come, lay your hands on her and she will live.” Matthew 9:18

 

But coming, she was worshipping him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ Matthew 15:25

And behold, Jesus met them, saying, and said, “Greetings!” And they, coming forward, grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Matthew 28.9

And seeing him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Matthew 28:17

Of the 13 occasions Matthew uses the verb “to worship”, almost all concern worship of Jesus. Herod assures the wise men that he will come to worship but we know he comes to kill. The first to recognise who Jesus is and to fall down in worship before him in the Gospel of Matthew are the wise men who come from the east. It is these foreigners who first prostrate themselves before him and offer him gifts that reveal their deep understanding of who he is. They fulfill what we have heard in Isaiah’s words on this blesséd day.

The meaning of these gifts have long interested Matthew’s readers. Irenaeus and Origen, famous names among the fathers of the Church, thought that gold indicated that Jesus was a king, frankincense indicated his divine nature, and myrrh his humanity. Maximus of Turi understood the incense to indicate the high priestly status of Jesus. These are guesses and not interpretations of what Matthew meant. Some have understood them to represent faith, hope, and love (Martin Luther). Some others saw them as good works, prayer, and fasting. In the sentimental Middle Ages, someone came up with the explanation that gold was given in view of the poverty of the family; frankincense because of the smell in the stable (not mentioned in Matthew); and myrrh to ensure the health of the baby. Nobody really knows. What we do know is the gift that we have received from the Magi. Their witness and worship proclaim to the world that God’s blessings are for all peoples. It is the Magi who truly brought an end to the crisis that could have prevented us from knowing the Lord Jesus who sent us to proclaim, to teach, and to baptise all nations.

Matthew’s Gospel was not the first Gospel to be written. That accolade belongs to Mark. But Matthew’s Gospel has long been called “the Catechism of the Church”. The title is well deserved, for Matthew’s is the Gospel that ensures that the Church declares to the whole of humanity that it is here to serve “all who labour and are heavily burdened”:

At that time Jesus declared,

“I thank you, Father, LORD of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:25-30

Joseph O’Hanlon.

 

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