Traditionally the celebration of the Epiphany would mark the end of our Christmas Season (the Twelve Days of Christmas), whereupon we continue the celebration with the Octave of Epiphany. With the revised Liturgical Calendar for the US, however, we celebrate the Epiphany on the first Sunday after New Years Day, and extend the Christmas season through to the second Sunday after New Years with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.
The Word for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah. Here the prophet sees a glorious vision for Jerusalem… the city shall be radiant and become a beacon for all the nations. These later chapters of Isaiah reflect the hope for the end of the Babylonian Exile, and the reconciliation of God to the people of Israel. As seen through our Christian eyes, this passage also speaks to our hope for the messiah, a savior who’s greatness will be seen by all nations, especially the dromedaries from the east bearing gifts of gold and frankincense (a detail not lost on Matthew when we get to his gospel).
While our first reading foreshadows the coming of a messiah, our second reading reminds us that this savior is not just for the people of Israel, but for all nations and all peoples. This message is particularly important to the new Christian community Paul founded in Ephesus, which being nearly 1000 miles from Jerusalem (by land or by sea), had a large gentile population.
Our gospel, in a story unique to Matthew, tells us the story of the coming of the maji. While many of us are familiar with the legends surrounding the maji and the importance they play in the infancy narratives, today’s gospel actually tell us very little about them. While we have come to know them as the “wise men,” the “kings,” or the “astrologers,” from various traditions, our text uses the word “maji,” a Latin variant from the original Greek “magos,” which may refer to the ancient Persian religious cast. As to the number of “magi,” the scripture is also unclear. While we commonly think of “the three wise men,” some traditions indicate that there could have been as many as twelve. The number three traditionally coming from the number of gifts, one from each of the maji. In fact, many of the details of the legend come from non-biblical sources and traditions, and makes for fascinating reading.
Regardless of exactly who they were, where they come from, or how many of them there were, we need to remind ourselves that, as is typical when reading scripture, these details are not important to the narrative. There are deeper layers of this story that need our attention. The fact that foreigners from the East could see the truth of the messiah better than many of Jesus’ own people. The fact that King Harod let fear and jealousy guide him instead of God and the prophets. Matthew uses these important lessons to help us all see the truth and learn from his story… a story that is just beginning, and will carry us through the rest of this year.