Father Donald Senior, CP

Jan. 6: Epiphany of the Lord

December 20, 2018

Visitors from Iran

Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12

The feast of the Epiphany lifts up a fundamental conviction of Christian faith that poses a strong challenge to some trends in our American society. The heart of this feast is the scene from Matthew’s Gospel where “Magi from the east,” led by a star glowing in the night sky, travel to Bethlehem to pay homage to “the newborn king of the Jews.”

Even though the wicked king Herod tries to subvert their quest, the Magi bring their gifts to the Christ child and return home by another way. 

On one level, this is a charming Christmas story celebrated in innumerable pageants, with children sporting beards and with strains of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” playing in the background. But in the context of Matthew’s Gospel and in relation to our own times, this is a powerful and challenging story about the universal horizon of Christian faith.

More than any other evangelist, Matthew emphasizes the beauty and importance of Jesus’ Jewish heritage. Jesus, the promised Messiah and liberator of Israel, fulfills God’s promises to his beloved people. Jesus’ teaching reflects the deep values of the Old Testament and the Jewish Law. 

As Jesus declares at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, “I have come not to destroy the Law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” Jesus’ mission of healing and teaching, as portrayed by Matthew, concentrates first on Israel. Only after the Resurrection, in a new moment of God’s grace, does it extend to all nations, which Matthew’s Gospel views as the ultimate vocation of Israel as God’s people.

It is this worldwide embrace of God’s salvation that the Epiphany story anticipates. The Magi are apparently astrologers and sages who searched the stars and the beauty of nature to find God. They come “from the east.” Most scholars believe this is a reference to ancient Persia, present-day Iran, whose traditions influenced the Bible in several ways.

For the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s day, they were “foreigners” just as Iranians are to most Americans today. They are not only “foreigners” but are considered deadly enemies.

These seekers are guided on their journey by their contemplation of nature in the form of the star, but, Matthew notes, they must consult with the Jewish Scriptures to fully inform their quest. The religious leaders cite a passage from the prophet Micah (5:1-3) that states that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. 

What Matthew underscores is that Herod and the religious leaders, people blessed with knowledge of the Scriptures, ironically consider Jesus a potential threat, while these foreigners accept the message and go and worship Jesus with joy.

Here is a premonition of the Gospel drama that will unfold. Some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people reject him, but those on the margins, including Gentiles such as the centurion of Capernaum and the Canaanite woman, will accept Jesus and his message with gratitude.

The first reading for today from Isaiah and its Psalm response invoke an image of Israel’s relationship to the nations, or non-Jews. God’s people Israel are to be a “light to the nations” dispelling the “thick clouds” that cover the peoples of the world. The psalm response from Psalm 72 acclaims: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you!” Likewise, the letter to the Ephesians, today’s second reading, describes the Gentiles as “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

Our Catholic tradition emphasizes the universal scope of Christian faith. All human beings are children of God. Each human life is sacred.

Far more significant than borders, languages and political allegiances that divide us across the globe, our common humanity and the divine image each of us bears unite us in a substantial way.

We cannot afford to be naive about the need for order and structures. But we are also challenged by our faith to question every arbitrary boundary and to seek peace and justice for all. This may not be the most popular political view today, but Epiphany reminds us that it is truly Christian.



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