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Breath of the Spirit

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



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JANUARY 3RD, 2016: FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY


In our reading of Scripture it’s easy to forget that each of our writings was originally directed to a specific community at a specific time and place. Technically none of our sacred authors wrote anything for us. (Else they would have written in modern English.) That’s why, among other things, to properly understand today’s gospel pericope, we must understand the community for whom Matthew is writing. It’s no accident that our well-known narrative of the magi is found only in Matthew.


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


In our reading of Scripture it’s easy to forget that each of our writings was originally directed to a specific community at a specific time and place. Technically none of our sacred authors wrote anything for us. (Else they would have written in modern English.) That’s why, among other things, to properly understand today’s gospel pericope, we must understand the community for whom Matthew is writing. It’s no accident that our well-known narrative of the magi is found only in Matthew.

The reason is simple: he’s the only evangelist who writes for a Jewish/Christian church; the other three compose their gospels for Gentile Christians. Matthew’s original readers could be compared to modern Seventh Day Adventists: Christians who believe they’re still obligated to carry out many of the 613 Laws of Moses. For instance, they don’t eat pork and still regard Saturday, not Sunday, as their weekday holy day. Matthew’s community would have regarded themselves as Jews, but unlike the majority of their friends and relatives, Jews who bought into the reform Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived.

One of the most important messages Matthew directs to these Jewish Christians is that non-Jewish Christians can be just as good followers of Jesus as they are. As a matter of fact, the evangelist tells his readers, the first people to recognize the exceptionalism of the child Jesus were not only Gentiles, but Gentiles who were also devotees of astronomy, something totally forbidden for Jews to practice – under penalty of death. Though Herod, the Jew, finds out from his Scripture scholars the name of the town in which the new king of the Jews is to be born, only non-Jews actually travel down from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to check out what these biblical experts promised they would find.

We know from the classic prophets like Third-Isaiah, the author of today’s first reading, that centuries before the birth of Jesus, Jews had to deal with the part non-Jews would play in the history of salvation. But in most cases, Yahweh was simply expected to use these Gentiles to support Jews in their faith. Either they would convert to Judaism – and therefore cease being non-Jews - or enrich Jews by "bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of Yahweh."

That’s quite different from what Gentile/Christians did. Without converting to Judaism, they became part of Yahweh’s new Chosen People, on an equal level with Jews. The disciple of Paul responsible for the letter to the Ephesians expresses this belief in black and white terms. ". . . The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." In the eyes of God there’s absolutely no difference between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Matthew was convinced his community needed to hear this from various angles – even magi angles. Many in the evangelist’s church still had to die to themselves in order to fully accept this truth.

Perhaps that’s why the magi’s third gift to Jesus is myrrh. We can understand why they offer this new-born king gold and frankincense. But what’s with the myrrh?

My old Scripture professor Dr. Irvin Arkin, in treating this passage, frequently asked what we would think if we opened a birthday gift and found a bottle of embalming fluid! That no doubt would put a damper on the celebration. Yet Arkin hit the nail on the head. At the time of Jesus myrrh was frequently used to anoint dead bodies.

Matthew’s telling us that dying is always part of our experience of the risen Jesus, especially when we’re called upon to accept others as equal to ourselves – others whom we’ve traditionally looked upon as being inferior.


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