ACTA

LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

 

THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD

Year A 

Year of Matthew

Download: Epiphany of the Lord

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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 of 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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Throughout the history of Jewish faith and the history of Christian presence in the world, both have suffered from external persecution and internal crises. Faith can survive persecution, even growing stronger, given renewal by the blood of martyrs.  But internal crises are far more destructive for they do not challenge faith: they destroy it. While persecution can nurture new life and foster tenacity of faith, the enemy within erodes faith, and leaves a legacy of division and rancour that fester over centuries, leaving deep chasms that may take an eternity to heal.  

    Two cases in point. When Nero, emperor of Rome from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D., killed hundreds of Christian in that city following the great fire of July, 64 A.D., faith flourished.  When popes in Rome promoted crusades against Islamic dominance in the Middle East, the fallout of that sinful enterprise was the destruction of the Christian city of Constantinople by European mercenaries and the separation of Christian East from Christian West.

    When Martin Luther, in line with others before him, called for reform, there was insufficient theological perspicacity in Rome and in the universities to encourage a deep examination of the ills besetting our Church. Divided Christianity does not possess a united voice effectively to proclaim the gospel of God in a very troubled world.

    Yet, though we may cast a cold eye on history and identify the internal crises that besmirched Christian witness down through the centuries, we must recognise that the first crisis in the earliest days of Christian proclamation was the deepest and most dangerous.  For what was a stake was the very nature of the gospel of God. It was a crisis that sought to deny God’s intention to bring humanity safely home.

    

PAUL and PETER

 

Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians, to those Paul named foolish Galatians, is at the very heart of the crisis. The letter is a very angry piece of writing.  The Lectionary on the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, does not confront us with this letter of Paul’s,  but if we forget Galatians, we will circumscribe the will of God and narrow Christian witness in our world.  There is a danger that Galatians forgotten will (has?) result in a fractured witness to the truth of the gospel of God, to the good news that Paul audaciously calls “my gospel” (Romans 2:16).  In the seven authentic letters written by Paul, he uses the word “gospel” 52 times.  At the heart of all his writings is a constant claim that what he preaches is the gospel of God.  There is no other gospel, no other interpretation of God’s will than that affirmed by the apostle.  The matter was of the greatest importance to Paul. It was for him the only question: what exactly is the gospel of God?

    The first step toward resolving that question must be a clarification of what the word “apostle” means. The word means one sent by Jesus to proclaim who he was, what God delivered into his hands for humanity’s wellbeing, and to enlighten men and women as to what God called them to be.  The very word “apostle” means “one sent”. Apostles were men and women given a message and commanded to proclaim it to the world. Paul had a hard time convincing people that he was a true apostle. That is why he is at such pains to insist that, as surely as Peter and the rest, he was an apostle.  Notice how the letter to those foolish Galatians (a Celtic people) begins:

 

Paul, an apostle— not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters who are with me—to the churches of Galatia.       Galatians 1:1-2

 

   Paul briefly reveals his vocation to be an apostle:

 

For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles …                             

                                  Galatians 1:11-16

   

    The Letter to Ephesians begins with an air of authority:

 

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…

Ephesians 1:1

 

Paul never claimed to be an innovator or an originator of the gospel he preached to Jew and Gentile alike.  Everywhere he insists that what he proclaims is the gospel of God. The Letter to Roman Christians opens with profound humility and even deeper understanding:

 

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord …

                                                                      Romans 1:1-4

 

 He provides here a very brief, but very important, summary of what, through his apostleship, God destined him to achieve.  Praising the faith of these northern Greeks, among the first European pagans to hear the name of Jesus, Paul says that their faith proved an inspiration from northern Macedonia to Achaia in the far south:

 

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.                           

                                                                 

                              I Thessalonians 1: 8-10

 

    It is of the greatest importance to realise that if Paul’s understanding of the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ (Romans 15:9) had been rejected, we would not be privileged, by God’s grace, to call ourselves Christians.  We would be pagans, gentiles, or whatever we fancied. Without the battle Paul fought there would be no Christian churches.  Christianity, if it had come to anything, would have become a sect of Judaism.

    To understand how God’s intentions were not thwarted before they had made much of an impression on the world, we must attend to what Paul did in Antioch.  He confronted Peter in that city: 

 

… when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.         

                                Galatians 2:11

 

     What happened was that Paul realised that the message of Jesus was a gift to humanity, not exclusively  to Jewish people. Not only that, but he insisted that pagans who listened to Paul’s proclamation of “the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:13) were not bound to the identity markers that gave Jews a unique reputation in the world.  Circumcision, food restrictions, and worship of one God to the exclusion of all other gods (that were, in fact, non-existent) were the identity markers and the boundary markers of Jews before the whole world.

   St Luke was not a Jew.  But when he became a Christian he believed profoundly in God’s peace.  He believed that Jesus came “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).  As soon as the baby is born and swaddled, Luke tells of the multitude of the heavenly choir who sang praise to God:

 

Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace …

Luke 1:14

 

    When Luke came to report the conflict between people like Paul, who preached Jesus to the world, and those who confined the gospel of God to Jews, who retained every feature of Jewish faith and practice, he does so with an eye to keeping the peace.  In Acts 15 he records a meeting in Jerusalem that was convened to rule between the two positions. Some Christian Jews had come to Antioch and were insisting that,

 

… unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.                                 

                                          Acts 15:1

 

A delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, was sent to Jerusalem.  The delegation was well received by the apostles and elders until,

 

… 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 15:5

 

After much discussion the leader of the Christian communities in Jerusalem, a man named James, gave his judgement on the matter:

 

 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

Acts 15:19-21

 

    However, there was a margin of compromise in the letter sent to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia in order to keep the peace and not to cause distress, either with the communities there or in the public profile of Christians. It is vital to become acquainted with the letter in order to understand why Paul opposed Peter and what was at stake in the theological conflict:

 

The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers and sisters who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

Acts 15:23-29

    

This enabled Paul and Barnabas to return to Antioch teaching and preaching, joining with many others in successfully proclaiming the gospel in that city.  But there was trouble ahead and Peter and those who shared his conservative view provoked the trouble. 

    Paul gives his account in the second chapter of his bitter letter to Galatian Christians.    The Jerusalem decision that was made, Paul tells his readers, by James, the brother of the Lord, indicated that Peter was entrusted with ‘”the gospel to the circumcised” and Paul with “the gospel to the Gentiles”. 

    But then Peter (Cephas) turned up in Antioch.  We have only Paul’s account of what happened but there is no reason to doubt its veracity:

 

But when Cephas 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, a city that owed its Christianity to his efforts and to those of his companion Barnabas.  He never returned there. He went to a host of towns and cities and brought the gospel of God to Jews and Gentiles alike.  He became the greatest apostle, the founder of many communities. What happened to Peter after the debacle in Antioch is not at all clear.  We know with a great deal of certainty that he went to Rome but the details of his ministry there before his martyrdom are sketchy. 

 

    Epiphany

 

Paul spoke for us when he clarified the matter in terms sufficiently clear to be understood by those foolish Galatians:

 

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying,

In you shall all the nations be blessed.

So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.                          

                                      Galatians 3:7-9

 

     Christians must pay very close attention to the greatest pastor given by God to care for the churches that became the Church.  Paul could be acerbic, bloody-minded, and occasionally wrong. But he was utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel of God brought to earth in Christ Jesus, Son of God, and our Lord.  Even in his angry letter to Galatians—a righteous anger, to be sure—Paul is able to express the most complex matters with an endearing simplicity. There is one word in the passage I quote below that needs explanation.  It is the word that caused Martin Luther’s Reformation. To be justified, if I understand Paul’s heart, is that I stand naked before God, except that I am instantly clothed by God’s love, embraced by God’s compassion, enfolded by God’s mercy, and made safe in hands that carry me to an eternity of welcome.  

    This is how Paul expressed this faith to his Galatian converts, to Jew and Gentile alike:

 

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.          

                                  Galatians 2:15-16

 

The fact is that for Paul, we must move from any thoughts of earning our place in God’s regard. We must move to the true reality: we are loved even in our sins.  We must move to what happened in the life and death of Jesus:

 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.                      

 

                                  Galatians 2:20-21

 

   While many scholars are not convinced that Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians, whoever wrote it had a profound understanding of what lay at the heart of Paul’s gospel. The word “mystery” (in Greek μυστήριον, mystērion) occurs frequently in Paul’s letters and in the letters that others wrote in his name.  It would be wrong to think that they are speaking of something that can’t be understood, a matter beyond human comprehension.  What kind of God would reveal to humanity stuff we can’t understand? What these writings mean is that God has revealed matters to us that, without God’s revelation, we would never dream of.  The word speaks of wonder, of amazement, not of incomprehension. 

   In the light of that fact I would translate the word mystērion to mean  “wonder”, rather than “mystery”.  This is what the author of Ephesians wrote:  

 

The wonder of Christ is this … that the Gentiles are co-heirs, and one body, and equal sharers in the promise  [given] in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a servant by the gift of God’s grace, given me through the working of [God’s] power.  To me, the very least of all the saints, this grace was given: that I gospel the Gentiles with the unimaginable riches of Christ, and to enlighten everyone as to the plan in the revelation, hidden away for ages in the God who created all things, in order that now, through the church, the all-embracing wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and powers in the heavens. [This was] according to the eternal purpose that came to earth in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have total confidence and ready access through faith in him.

Ephesians 3:6-12

 

Perhaps what Paul says to the Roman Christians who received his challenging letter should engage every heart that seeks to proclaim the gospel of God to our dark times:

Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, 

for the glory of God.

Romans 15:7

   

      For us who are Gentiles, Epiphany is the greatest of all our feast days.  Without Paul’s determination to set the gospel free, we would not be celebrating our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  We would not have any faith to celebrate.

 

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.

 

    From the First Sunday of Advent up to and including the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, the Lectionary contains 26 readings from the Book of Isaiah.  In journeying with Isaiah during this time of hope and fulfilment, we are travelling through nearly three hundred years of pain and hope. The volatile Middle East, from the eight century B.C., down to the time of Jesus and beyond, far beyond, was in turmoil as successive imperial powers sought to acquire as much land as possible.  Agriculture was the only industry in the world down to the 18th century.  That is to say, all other productive activities were financed by the fruit of the fields.  While Egypt was the breadbasket, the powers to north and to the west—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and beyond—sought dominance and this involved to necessity of more and more land.  Palestine, ironically a name derived from the coastal peoples called Philistines, in the Bible the traditional enemies of Israel, was the pathway for mighty armies to meet and to engage.   It was a narrow strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  It was overrun as a matter of routine.  

    The prophet Isaiah (whose name means “salvation of God”) was active in Jerusalem during the second half of the 8th century B.C.  The Book of Isaiah reflects a little of the prophets teaching.  Perhaps chapters 1 to 9 were composed by Isaiah himself. But most of the 66 chapters have to do with two disastrous periods in Israel’s history. Chapters 1 to 34 reflect fairly local upsets but especially with the Assyrian invasion. After a bridging chapter (Isaiah 35), the remaining chapters are  concerned with the Persian conquest of most of the Middle East. In between the domination by these two imperialistic powers, the Babylonians conquered Israel and another exile was inflicted on its people.  

    Today’s reading comes from the final chapters.  These are concerned with the return of the people and the eternal covenant of peace that will embrace the warring factions among the nations.  God will be as a loving husband:

 

For your Maker is your husband,

the Lord of hosts is his name;

 and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,

 the God of the whole earth he is called.

Isaiah 54:5-6

A solemn promise is made:

 

For the mountains may depart

and the hills be removed,

but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,

and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”

says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10

The hope for peace will be fulfilled for all humanity:

 

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,

and holds fast my covenant—

 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

 their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

 The Lord God,

 who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,

 “I will gather yet others to him

besides those already gathered.”

Isaiah 56:6-8

 

It is this hope, this promise, a hope and promise fulfilled, that is celebrated on this Feast of the Epiphany.  The word “epiphany” means a disclosure, and what is revealed today is what drove St Paul from Jerusalem to Antioch and on the Rome, with many stops in between.  The glory of the Lord will cover the earth and the nations will come to God’s light.

 

 Responsorial Psalm    

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

 

R/. May all kings fall down before him,

all nations serve him.

 

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/. May all kings fall down before him,

all nations serve him.

 

Psalm 72 is one of a number of psalms celebrating King David and by implication every king who succeeded to the throne of Israel.  While flattery is to be expected, there is a conviction that royal authority comes from God and God must give wisdom to the king. If the king is to rule as God’s shepherd, then he must reflect the God who has placed him on the throne.   The litmus test is simple: he must give justice to the poor:

 

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the children of the needy.

Psalm 72:4

 

Praise will be lavished on the king and he will have long life.  But he must be as God intended that he be:

 

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.

 From oppression and violence he redeems their life,

and precious is their blood in his sight.

 Long may he live!

 

God has the highest expectations:

 

In his days may the righteous flourish,

and peace abound, till the moon be no more!

    

The demands made on the king were seldom, if ever, delivered.   But the child who has been born King of the Jews will shepherd not only my people Israel.  He is the humble one who in humility:

 

Behold, your king is coming to you,

 humble, and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.

Matthew 21:5

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

 

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles have written briefly to you—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you—explaining how the mystery was made known to me by revelation. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men 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.

 

As we have seen above, the mystery of God’s engagement with humanity is not some unfathomable purpose beyond human understanding.  It is rather a revelation of God’s commitment to all creation, a wondrous declaration of God’s steadfast love for creation. 

   Paul was forced to face this on the road to Damascus and to be instructed in the wonder of it by a household of Christians in Damascus.  How are we to explain that within three or four years after the death of Jesus, there was in Damascus, the capital of Syria, a little house church capable of bringing the erudite Saul of Tarsus to expand his understanding of this deep Jewish faith, to embrace what God had done and was continuing to do in Jesus of Nazareth? 

    A revelation made known to me, the letter to Ephesians declares.  But the revelation did not come dropping down out of the skies.  Of course Paul is right to declare that his enlightenment came from God but notice how God went about turning Saul of Tarsus into Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, after that “light from heaven flashed around him” on the Damascus road:

 

And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.                            

                                      Acts 9:4-18

 

    It is worth pondering the story yet again, especially on this day of Epiphany, a joyous day, a revelation that we, the Gentiles “are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”.  It is surely a wonder that a household of Jews, lately come to faith in Jesus, should be so full of the Holy Spirit that they are entrusted with the task of instructing Paul.  

    The wonder that we belong to the household of God comes with a call to do what Ananias did: he proclaimed the gospel.  Epiphany is at once a revelation and an implicit ordination to mission. Paul was not baptised into silence. We are not baptised into silence and private adoration.  Filled with the Holy Spirit as Paul was, we are called to proclaim the gospel of God. 

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 Magi 

 

There were no three kings.  They were not called Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar, one white, one black, and one brown.  Because the visitors conversed with King Herod, seemingly as equals, it was assumed that they, too, were kings.    Because there were three gifts, it was assumed there were three givers. And it was an Englishman, the Venerable Bede of Jarrow, who decided that one came from Asia, one from Africa, and one from Europe. 

    Matthew is at once more, and less, exciting.  The title magus (plural: magi) is an Old Persian word that refers to a priest.  The priest practised mageia, not magic, but work befitting a priest, such as the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and astronomy/astrology, indeed, any arcane arts likely to reveal the minds of the gods.  When the word found its way into Greek, it took a downturn. Sophocles, in his play Oedipus, King of Thebes, describes a soothsayer as a magos, meaning “a fraudulent quack”.  Then there is the story of Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8.  Matthew’s magi are, however, the real thing. 

    In the Book of Daniel, which has a very oriental feel about it, we find Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon threatening to put all his magi to death because they fail to interpret a royal dream.  Daniel, a Jew, one of the king’s wise men who had proved himself to be ten times better that the court magi in learning, skill in all matters, wisdom, adept at interpreting visions and dreams, interpreted the king’s dream.  Thus he saved all the Chaldean mage from a sorry end (Daniel, chapters 1 and 2). Wise Daniel and his wise companions are the prototypes of Matthew’s men from the east.

 

    The Star 

 

Matthew’s star is no ordinary star.  Not only does it travel from north to south, it drops from the heavens and stands still over the house where the child was.  To attempt to identify Matthew’s star as a comet, a planetary conjunction, a supernova, is to chase moonbeams. Matthew, a Jew, and a man steeped in the Jewish Bible, would surely have known the ancient words that a strange man from the east, a pagan called Balaam, the owner of a recalcitrant ass, was inspired by God, turned a curse into a blessing, and sang of a star to be born.  Balaam’s star is David the King.

 

The oracle of Balaam the son of Peor ,

the oracle of one whose eye is perfect,

the oracle of one who hears the words of God,

and knows the knowledge within the Most High,

the man who sees the vision of the Almighty,

a man who falls down but whose eyes are uncovered.

 

I see him, but not yet;

I behold him, but not near:

a star shall come forth out of Jacob,

                a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.

                                                

                                          Numbers 24:15-17

 

As Balaam points to the “star” who will be David the King, so Matthew’s star points to another king to be born, as David was, in Bethlehem.

 

    The Gifts 

 

What happened to the gold?  Did the family live happy ever after as a result of an unforeseen windfall?  To ask such questions is to expose the silliness of taking Matthew’s text as if he had set out to write unvarnished history.  

    Matthew is not concerned with the fortuitous increase in the financial resources of Joseph and Mary.  Gold is the stuff of kings. Frankincense and myrrh were the preserve of the wealthy. Matthew’s magi seek the one who is born King of the Jews.  The gifts endorse the royal status of the child. St Justin Martyr was one of the first commentators to link the gifts with words from the Hebrew Bible that will surely have inspired Matthew. Consider a few lines from Isaiah, all from the very chapter that serves as the first reading on this glorious feast day:  

 

Arise, and shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you …

 

Nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your rising …

Your sons shall come from afar,

and your daughters shall be carried in arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant,

your heart shall thrill and rejoice …

 

… the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels of Midian and Ephah …

 

They will bring gold and frankincense,

and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD;

the children of your oppressors

shall come bending low to you …

 

Violence no more shall be heard in your land …

your city walls shall be called Salvation,

your city gates named Praise.

                                       

                                      Isaiah, chapter 60 passim 

 

The gifts of the Magi are fittingly brought to the new son of David, Jesus, the King of the Jews.   With a mind and an imagination steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, Matthew draws his readers into contemplation of the new king, and invites them to worship with wise visitors from the great pagan world beyond the little town of Bethlehem.  And up the road a bit is the city of Jerusalem and a place called Golgotha, where the King of the Jews, the Son of God, will save his people from their sins (Matthew 27:32-50).

 

         Herod the Great

 

Herod the Great, king of Palestine from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C., was in many ways a genius, a benefactor, but he was also a paranoid tyrant.  But we are hardly justified in adding to his many murderous crimes the death of children in Bethlehem.  The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, born in 37 A.D, provides a minute history and, for political reasons, emphasizes the crimes of a man he had little inducement to admire. He does not mention the massacre of babies in Bethlehem.  Is it not strange that when we meet members of the Herodian family in the New Testament, none seems to remember Jesus or to recall what terror the old king inflicted at the birth of the child who grew up to be Jesus of Nazareth under the rule of Herod Antipas.

    Matthew makes no further reference to the matter, even though he records the cruel death of John the Baptist at the hands of the same Antipas (Matthew 1-12). The crime is also recorded in great detail in Mark’s Gospel (6:14-29). The fact that in a tiny hamlet on the edge of the desert there would in all likelihood, have been few young children does not add historical credibility, when the lack of collaborative evidence casts a thick pall of doubt.

    Other paths to truth must be trod if we are to see what Matthew is about.  Again, what determines his thought are the divine patterns he discerns in his Bible.   He reworks old patterns so that his readers may come to know how it is that Peter, later in this Gospel, can declare, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).

   We have seen Matthew’s Joseph modelled on Joseph, the dreamer of old. The story of Moses’ battle with Pharaoh provides Matthew with strands to weave into his overture, strands of death and danger, of flight, and a heavenly guided return.  When we move beyond the overture, we see the unfolding of themes laid down here. The ministry of Jesus will bring him from Galilee of the Gentiles to death in Jerusalem and back again to Galilee of the Gentiles to meet his disciples when he has been raised from the dead.

    The Book of Exodus, chapters 1 to 15, narrates the struggles between the Pharaoh and God.  Moses is God’s champion, the one appointed to wrest the enslaved people of Israel from the tyranny of the king (as the Pharaoh is called in Exodus).  Moses himself is rescued from the programme of male infanticide ordered by the Pharaoh and he grows in wisdom, thus enabled to lead the people out of slavery to meet with God on the holy mountain.  For Pharaoh read Herod. For the death of the Hebrew boys in Egypt read Bethlehem babies. For the flight of Moses to safety in the desert, read the flight of Joseph, with the child and his mother to Egypt. For the death of the first-born sons at Pharaoh’s hands, read the death of Jesus.  For Moses meeting God on the mountain, read the meeting on the mountain of the Risen Lord with worshipping disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

    On the Feast of Epiphany we celebrate that the nations of the world were not left outside God’s good care.  The battle that Paul fought with Peter in Antioch was a victory for God and for God’s determination to bring humanity safely home. However, amidst the rejoicing, we must take to heart the words of another great apostle, Pope Francis, who speaks to my parish and to yours when he warns of the “kind of ecclesial introversion” that gripped St Peter in Antioch. Pope Francis calls all parishes to hear, as Paul heard, the pain of the world and to respond as Paul did with the gospel of God:

 

The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending of the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and community. While certainly not the only institution that evangelizes, if it proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”.  This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people, or a self-absorbed cluster made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. 

                   

      Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel, §28.  

 

Dr  Joseph O’Hanlon  

   

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