Thursday, January 1, 2015

Epiphany of the Lord, 2015

If Easter is our highest holy day, the Epiphany is rightly the second.  It is the celebration of the realization that God's salvation is a gift for all people, everywhere.  It is this feast that defines us as Christians, revealing not only that this child, Jesus, is the Christ, but that the grace of reconciling the people to God is a universal invitation.


Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-2

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.  And that is the key point of this reading today... that all people, all kingdoms, will see Jerusalem, God's city and God's people, as the light and life, and be drawn to her and the glory of the Lord.  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).

Our Psalm reflects the same sentiment of our first reading, but instead of looking toward Jerusalem, the Psalm has us looking to the King and his Son.  Ancient peoples saw the kingdom and the king as one in the same (i.e. David is Israel, and Israel is David), and here the Psalm asks for God's judgment and justice be endowed onto the king and his son, so that these kings would rule with the same care and mercy that God would show.  From our Christian perspective, however, we see this also as a foreshadowing of Christ, our King and king of the universe. 

This revelation is not lost on St. Paul in our second reading from his letter to the Ephesians.  Here Paul states clearly and unambiguously that salvation through Christ is open to everyone.  There was much debate in the early Church as to whether you had to be a Jew (or become Jewish) to be a Christian.  But just as Jesus reached out to foreigners, it became clear to the Apostles that Gentiles (non-Jews) needed to be welcome in the Church.  This revelation from Paul, who had been a Pharisee and devout follower of Jewish Law, demonstrates the profound nature of this message that that Christ is the light for all people.

Our Gospel also goes to great lengths to reinforce this revelation, this epiphany.  In a story that is unique to Matthew's Gospel, we hear the story of the Magi, coming from the East, to find this newborn king of the Jews.  We're very familiar with this story through song and legend and tradition, but as modern Christians this story tends to loose the impact that its first listeners (Matthew's primarily Jewish community) would have heard.  In fact, Matthew's community would likely have felt much like "all of Jerusalem" in this story, greatly troubled that these foreign emissaries seem to know something that they don't.  That Jesus is in fact the messiah that had been foretold by the prophets.  That this is the one, and if they can see this, so should we.  It also demonstrates how 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.

The story and the legend of the Magi hold a special place in collective Christian conscience, and rightly so.  But we also need to remember that the true gift they brought was the revelation that this child was the Christ, and he brought salvation for all people.

Final Thoughts:
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.

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