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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

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God’s unpredictable behavior is one of the reasons we have such a thick Bible. God makes a habit of acting in ways no one could have anticipated. For instance, if God only did what made sense, we certainly wouldn’t have today’s feast of the Epiphany.

JANUARY 4, 2015: EPIPHANY

Readings:

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

Through the centuries, most Christians have become more comfortable with St Bonaventure’s appraisal of God working in our lives than our biblical authors’ appraisal. The former coined the oft-repeated Latin statement, “Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.” In English, “God could do it. It would make sense for God to do it. Therefore God does it.” Such reasoning is frequently employed when dealing with the Virgin Mary. God, for instance, could create the most beautiful woman on earth. Wouldn’t it be fitting for his/her Son’s mother to be the most beautiful woman on earth? Therefore, Mary was the most beautiful woman on earth.

Our sacred authors rarely follow that reasoning. If they’d made a statement to parallel Bonaventure’s, it would have read: “Potuit, decuit, sed nunquam fecit.” “God could do it. It would make sense for God to do it. But God never does it that way.”

God’s unpredictable behavior is one of the reasons we have such a thick Bible. God makes a habit of acting in ways no one could have anticipated. For instance, if God only did what made sense, we certainly wouldn’t have today’s feast of the Epiphany.

Writing for a Jewish/Christian community in the late 70s, Matthew is forced to deal with the unforeseen entry of large numbers of non-Jews into Christianity. Jesus’ original disciples had presumed only Jews would follow this carpenter from Capernaum. After all, no one regarded him as the founder of a new religion; he was simply a prophetic reformer of Judaism. Why would Gentiles be interested in imitating this radical Jew?

At first, when non-Jews showed an interest in becoming other Christs, among other things, they were obligated to imitate the historical Jesus’ Jewishness. Before they could convert to Christianity they first had to convert to Judaism. But when people like Paul began more deeply to understand the implications of the risen, not the historical Jesus among us, most church leaders dropped the requirement that non-Jewish converts become Jews. After all, as Paul reminded the Galatians in chapter 3, the risen Jesus is a new creation - neither slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female.

Though Matthew’s church seems to have generally accepted this reality, the evangelist still thinks it’s necessary to include a handful of occasions in his gospel when the faith of Gentiles trumped the faith of Jews. Today’s magi pericope is the first of those occasions.

Matthew’s magi certainly aren’t kings; they’re astrologers, relating to God in a way our sacred authors constantly condemn: they follow stars. According to the 613 laws of Moses, such individuals are to be killed on sight. Yet here, employing their forbidden methods, these gift-bearing Gentiles discover the new-born King of the Jews, while their bible-quoting contemporaries - Herod’s “wise men” - never leave Jerusalem and go just a few miles down the road to Bethlehem. No one in Matthew’s original community would have missed the point. It’s an understatement to say God works in strange ways.

Third-Isaiah was aware of God’s erratic behavior when he spoke about Gentiles one day flocking to Jerusalem to praise Yahweh. Just a generation after the Babylonian Exile, he was convinced that “nations (non-Jews) shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”

The disciple of Paul who wrote Ephesians was certain that having an insight about non-Jews playing an essential role in Yahweh’s salvation was one of the perks of being a Christian. This was “the mystery . . . made known . . . by revelation. Not made known to people in other generations.”

All three of today’s readings imply that discovering God’s “non-fitting” actions is an ongoing process. Should we then be adding books to our Bible? Today’s Hebrew and Christian Scriptures might just be too small of a collection.

 

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