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JANUARY 7, 2007: Epiphany


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

Not everyone who celebrates today's feast will appreciate or even want to hear the message Matthew conveys in today's gospel pericope.

I always remind my students of Fr. Dennis McCarthy's definition of "canonicity." "We have these specific books in the Bible," the late Jesuit scholar taught, "because they've helped the most people over the longest period of time to understand their faith." Matthew's story of the magi forces us to zero in on the last words of McCarthy's definition - "to understand their faith."

Counter to popular belief, our scriptural writings were never intended to give people their faith. Only after they believed did they turn to our sacred writings to understand the implications of their faith. Among other things, this means only those who have a biblical faith before they pick up Scripture will benefit from hearing those inspired words. This is certainly verified in today's Matthew passage.

Writing for a Jewish/Christian community, Matthew is attempting to show how non-Jews can reach faith in Jesus without going through the faith-process his own readers had experienced.

The magi are astrologers, not kings. Obviously Gentiles, they follow a path to Jesus forbidden to Jews. We who hear this narrative today simply don't share the same religious environment its original listeners shared. If we did, the 1940 Academy Award winning song would be on every church's Index of Forbidden Music. No one would be permitted even to hear, much less sing When You Wish Upon a Star. Jews were prohibited by their Sinai-ratified Mosaic Law to use heavenly bodies for anything except light and instruments to determine times and seasons. Those who dared "follow" stars were to be put to death. All Jews knew Yahweh never employed stars as means of divine communication.

Yet, that precise course correction happens here. And not only here, but also in the parallel situations presented in our other two readings.

Paul presumes some in Ephesus are just as locked into the same limited view of God's actions as some in Matthew's community. That's why he refers to Gentile participation in Christianity as a revelation ". . . not made known to people in other generations." No one could have foreseen the day when these non-Jews would become "coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

God not only works outside the restricting lines we create, God completely and haughtily erases those lines.

Third-Isaiah attempts to prepare his audience for such "unreligious" actions by talking about the day when Jerusalem will benefit from the generosity of Gentiles. "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 Yahweh." Giving these words even more significance is that when the prophet proclaims them, Jerusalem is in ruins. If the city is to be rebuilt, Gentiles will have to help - something most Jews would have found unacceptable.

Some of us also find the message of these three authors unacceptable. As Gentiles, we're not uptight about the role Gentiles are given in the passages. But formed by catechism and dogmatic methods of instruction, it's difficult to step outside the boundaries in which we're so comfortable. Our sacred authors would have regarded such a limited mentality as "unbiblical faith."

I suggest you look around after today's gospel proclamation. If someone spontaneously throws his or her fist into the air and yells, "Yeah!!" you've just discovered someone for whom Scripture was originally intended.