Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Epiphany of the Lord

The celebration of the Epiphany varies greatly among the many different Christian traditions and cultures.  Originating from the Easter Church in the fourth century, the celebration of the Epiphany ranks third in importance, behind Easter and Pentecost.  While the celebration was accepted by the Western Church in the fifth century, its celebration has varied over history, but still remains an important part of our Christmas season.


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

Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah, referred to as Trito-Isaiah or "third" Isaiah.  As with the other post Babylonian Exile prophecies, we see a vision of Jerusalem as a shining beacon to all the nations.  These nations both near and far, will bring their riches as tribute.  The significance of the gifts of gold and frankincense as mentioned in this prophecy are not lost on Matthew when we get to his Gospel.

Our Psalm reflects similar sentiments only instead of focusing on Jerusalem, we focus on the King and his Son.  To the ancients, king and country were one in the same, but to our Christian ears, the justice and mercy shown by the Son help us to draw a line from these ancient prophecies straight to Jesus, the Christ.

While our first readings give us a vision of a new kingdom, who gets to be part of this new Kingdom?  Our second reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians tells us.  Here Paul states clearly and unambiguously that salvation through Christ is open to everyone.  There was some question in the early Church as to whether you had to be a Jew (or become Jewish) to be accepted as a follower of Christ.  This revelation, this epiphany from Paul, who had been a Pharisee and devout follower of Jewish Law, demonstrates the profound nature of his message... that Christ's saving light isn't just for some people, but for all people.

As is fitting for this celebration of the Epiphany, our gospel is the story of the Maji.  In this story unique to Matthew's gospel we have the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy... that all nations will come to see Jerusalem and her king (and his son) as a beacon of light.  The Maji in our story represent these foreign nations, and in case we're not sure, Matthew takes care to note that they offered gifts of gold and frankincense as was noted in our first reading.  But while these foreigners are able to recognize Jesus as this king of prophecy, we are told that King Herod and all the Jewish people were greatly troubled, as if to ask, "what is it that they see that we can't?"  Matthew's story is meant to help us make the distinction between being guided by fear and jealousy or being guided by God and the prophets.

The story and the legend of the Magi holds a special place in the 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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