JANUARY 8TH, 2017: EPIPHANY OF THE CHRIST
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.
The future rarely turns out the way we plan it. This is especially true with Jewish expectations of the Messiah. Years ago, the late Raymond Brown remarked in one of our diocesan clergy conferences that the Messiah 1st century CE Jews were expecting has yet to come. “Jesus of Nazareth was not that Messiah.”
Many Christians think the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had just one task: to foretell the coming of Jesus as Messiah. They overlook the fact that scholars tell us biblical concepts of the Messiah varied according to the peoples’ needs in the day and age in which the various authors wrote. Messianic predictions, for instance, in 9th century BC Israel were quite different from those in the 6th century. Over the centuries the Chosen People went from presuming one of their next kings would be the Messiah to believing Yahweh would eventually send just one non-royal, unique individual to fill that role.
Since Rome occupied Palestine during Jesus’ historical ministry, most Jews were convinced God would send a military Messiah who would throw the foreigners out. In the first third of the 1st century, pious Israelites were expecting the epiphany – the public “coming out” – of that kind of savior. For most, the biblical Jesus’ epiphany as the Christ (the Messiah) was a total surprise.
As we hear in today’s Third-Isaiah reading, there always was hope in Judaism that Gentiles would eventually “gather and come” to Israel in ways that would enrich the country and its people. “. . . The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.” Many even believed that besides “bearing gold and frankincense,” these non-Jews would also proclaim “the praises of Yahweh.” In other words, they’d actually convert to Judaism.
No Jew would object to their anticipated Messiah bringing Gentiles “into the fold.” The main problem they encountered with Jesus of Nazareth revolved around some of his followers bringing these Gentiles into their faith communities without first converting them to Judaism. The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Ephesians succinctly states this “heretical” belief. “. . . Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This certainly wouldn’t be the teaching of the Christ whom the vast majority of Jews were expecting.
That seems to be one of the reasons Matthew, writing for a Jewish-Christian community, includes the story of the magi. Throughout his gospel he brings up instances in which non-Jews are better at living the faith of Jesus than Jews. Nowhere is this more sharply demonstrated at the beginning of Jesus’ life than having not just Gentiles, but Gentile astrologers travel hundreds of miles “to do homage to the newborn king of the Jews,” while Herod, the Jew, refuses to go the few miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to even check on the accuracy of biblical prophecies about the Messiah’s birth.
Yet perhaps the strongest drawback to wide acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is contained in one small addition Matthew makes to Third-Isaiah’s Gentile gift list. Besides gold and frankincense, the magi also bring myrrh. The late Dr. Irvin Arkin once asked, “How would you feel if someone gave you a bottle of embalming fluid as a birthday gift?” At the time of Jesus, myrrh was normally used to anoint dead bodies before they were entombed or buried.
Even in this glorious epiphany event, Matthew reminds his readers that if they accept Jesus as Messiah, they’re also accepting their responsibility to suffer and die with him. You don’t have to be Jewish to have problems with the epiphany of that kind of Messiah.