JANUARY 7TH, 2018: EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his 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.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
"Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
We Three Kings certainly isn’t an appropriate hymn for the feast of the Epiphany. If Scripture scholars had their way every “kingly” crib statue would be ceremoniously smashed during today’s liturgy – immediately before the homily.
Why do we encourage such a violent ritual? Because the idea of royalty visiting Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem home completely turns the evangelist’s message upside down.
Matthew’s well-known narrative commemorates a visit not of kings, but of despised people. The confusion happened when the original Greek text was transliterated into Latin; the word magoi became magi. The Greek magoi refers to sorcerers or magicians; the Latin magi signifies kings or high potentates.
Counter to us Latin-rite folk, Greek speaking Christians always kept the gospel’s original meaning. For instance, the famous mid-6th century Byzantine mosaic of the three Bethlehem visitors in the basilica of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna depicts the trio wearing magician outfits not royal robes.
Once we transform sorcerers into kings, Matthew’s theology goes down the biblical tube. The evangelist includes this narrative in his Jewish/Christian gospel to point out that the most unlikely people, using the most unlikely means, can often surface Jesus in their lives more quickly than likely people following likely means.
According to Exodus 22:17, sorcerers are to be killed on sight. Among other abominations, they follow stars and heavenly bodies to surface God’s will in their lives. Nothing could be further from biblical faith. (Though few have noticed, the 1940 Academy Award winning song - and Disney mainstay - When You Wish Upon a Star is roundly condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures.) Yet these pagan magicians eventually find Jesus while Herod, the Jew, refuses to even go down to Bethlehem. God obviously works in strange ways.
Though Third-Isaiah reflects, in our first reading, on non-Jews one day becoming Jews, he never goes as far as Paul’s conviction that Gentiles as Gentiles can become Christians. That unexpected discovery certainly makes the faith of Jesus an exciting experience for the Apostle. As he tells the Ephesians, “. . . Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In other words, “No one can predict how God’s going to work in our lives.”
That conviction was one of the original insights fueling the restoration of the catechumenate. Most of us remember the old days when possible new members simply went to a series of “convert classes.” After a couple months of having the priest fill their minds with Catholic teachings, the students took a simple true/false exam, easily passed, and were welcomed into the church either by baptism or profession of faith.
The restored catechumenate, on the other hand, begins not with the candidates receiving gobs of new information, but by encouraging them to reflect on what has already happened in their lives to bring them to this point. The presupposition is that God’s been working with and in them long before they and their sponsor walk into the parish hall. Following Matthew’s magoi theology, no two discovery stories are the same.
I once read an article explaining why John Henry Newman’s canonization was taking such a long time. One of the reasons for the delay came from the Vatican commission’s refusal to include anything in the process that had happened to Newman before his admission into the Catholic Church. Obviously the powers that be were convinced God began working in the life of the author of Lead Kindly Light only 12 years after he penned those famous lyrics, in 1845 when he became a Catholic.
Perhaps we should create a Scripture service to be used immediately before the first catechumenate or canonization session begins, consisting just of today’s gospel reading.