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JANUARY 4, 2009: THE EPIPHANY OF JESUS

Readings: 

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

There’s a reason the magi narrative is found in Matthew and no other gospel. Only Matthew writes for a Jewish/Christian community. The other three evangelists write for Gentile/Christians.

It’s essential to understand the magi aren’t kings. (Try to pretend you’re some place else if your local song leader begins today’s liturgy with We Three Kings.) Magi are pagan astrologers, Gentiles who spend their lives doing what faithful Jews are forbidden to do: determining their earthly destinies by observing how heavenly bodies influence those destinies. Ancient Jews would have been labeled idolaters if they even hummed along with the 1940 Academy Award winning song When You Wish Upon a Star.

Matthew is not only telling his community that Jesus was “discovered,” but that this epiphany was granted to the most unlikely people: uncircumcised Gentile astrologers, people who found their way to Jesus by practicing a forbidden path - stargazing.

The Jewish members of Matthew’s community presumed there was only one path to Jesus: following the Hebrew Scriptures and their own Jewish faith. That seems to be why the evangelist creates the encounter between the magi and Herod. The latter has all the biblical resources he needs at the clap of the royal hand. “Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” But when Herod learns the Messiah resides just a few miles from his palace, he doesn’t immediately clear his schedule and travel down the Bethlehem road to meet “the newborn king of the Jews.” Instead, he stays put and lets his Gentile visitors do the walking.

Matthew’s message isn’t very complicated. On one hand, Scripture is useless unless we act on what we hear. On the other hand, we shouldn’t dis those who don’t know the difference between Genesis and Jeremiah. People who don’t even know our Scriptures exist can still find Jesus - even those people whose lifestyle runs counter to some of Scripture’s basic teachings.

The disciple of Paul who gave us the letter to the Ephesians also reflects on how God not only works outside the envelope, but also helps us expand our own envelopes. “The mystery. . . was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to (God’s) holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Only Spirit-filled people regarded the early Christian opening to Gentiles as an essential part of God’s plan. The more conservative looked at this radical outreach as something counter to God’s will.

Today’s two Christian authors aren’t the only scriptural broad-minded individuals. Five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Third-Isaiah speaks about Gentiles doing something he originally encouraged his fellow- Jews to do: rebuild Jerusalem and its temple after its 586 BC Babylonian destruction.

Symbolically speaking to Jerusalem, the prophet proclaims, “Nations (Gentiles) shall walk by your light.  for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of the nations shall be brought to you.”

When John’s Jesus promises his Last Supper community, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” we forget that there also are many roads to those dwelling places, each as sacred as the other.