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Breath of the Spirit
Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.
Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.
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.
JANUARY 5, 2020: EPIPHANY OF THE CHRIST
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
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.
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