THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
USCCB link to all three readings
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
"Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
One of the differences between the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke is the identification of the home of Joseph and Mary. It is hard to underestimate the importance of the prophesy of Micah 5 in Jesus’ day, that from Bethlehem would come the future leader of Israel. Matthew bases the domestic roots of the Holy Family in Bethlehem; there is nothing in his Gospel to suggest that all his Christmas narrative—up to and including Sunday’s reading—did not happen in Bethlehem. Matthew opens Chapter 2 with an affirmation that Jesus was indeed born in the city predicted by Micah. There is some irony in the text; the only person in Jerusalem ignorant of the prophesy in the narrative is the sitting King Herod.
Matthew, in his effort to remain true to Micah’s prophesy, must then deal with the fact that in his adult life Jesus was known as “the Nazorean,” and the evangelist is compelled at the end of Chapter 2, beyond our assigned text, to explain that Joseph did not return the family to Bethlehem, but rather to Nazareth to keep a low profile under the new king Archelaus, Herod’s son. Thus, one can honestly say that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were political refugees in the sense we understand the term today.
R.T. France explains that this entire narrative at hand has the mark of royalty. (p. 61) The child Jesus is born in the city where the new King David is expected to arrive. This royal theme is continued when foreign dignitaries arrive upon the scene in Bethlehem, bearing gifts strikingly like those borne by the Queen of Sheba during her visit to King Solomon a millennium earlier. Moreover, the heavy-handed presence of King Herod in the narrative—he who would lie to the Magi and then commit infanticide in his lust to remain in power—sets the important literary contrast of “bad king” in contrast to the kind of king that Jesus would become. In Matthew 27 Pilate and the soldiers use the title “King of the Jews” as Jesus embraces his suffering and death without complaint.
The term “Magi” covers a great deal of territory in the complex world of religion, astrology, dream interpretation, and astronomy of the Eastern world of Jesus’ day. Magi often served the courts of kings, so the least that can be said is that as a rule such men were respected in Persian courts, for example, for wisdom and religious insight. France points out that the first appearance or epiphany of Jesus in Matthew’s narrative is to foreign non-Jews, not the chosen people of Israel that one might have expected. The vision of Matthew’s entire Gospel is the fulfillment of the entire Israelite promise in a new Son of David who will draw all peoples of the world to the mountain of the new and eternal Jerusalem. Isaiah 60, the first reading of Sunday’s Mass, predates Matthew by centuries but it does embody much of Matthew’s picture of the future. So, it is not surprising that in his introductory chapters Matthew depicts the homage of noble pagans from afar bearing gifts.
There is a good amount of detail here within the narrative, but we must proceed with the caveat that historically speaking none of the events in Sunday’s Gospel have ever been independently verified, not even Herod’s slaughter of infants later in the chapter. It is more probable that Matthew has given us a theologically-driven sermon through the medium of a compelling drama. Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 A.D., a generation after St. Paul’s works on the cosmic dimensions of the saving Christ. In Paul’s thinking, all of creation has been redeemed, not just the human souls. So again, it is not surprising that a cosmic event—a brilliant star presumably in the western sky—compelled some of the best minds in the East to undertake a presumably strenuous journey.
France explains that in the Middle East an unexplained star (possibly a comet or nova) was believed to herald the birth of a new king. (Hence the star over your stable set at home, mixing Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives.) From their vantage point the Magi probably concluded that a new king had been born in Palestine, and the most logical motive of their trip was to pay tribute to the royal family. It is interesting that in the court of Herod in Jerusalem, where one ought to have found such a child, the Magi still inquire over his whereabouts. There is a hint of deeper perception by these Eastern visitors, particularly when the sitting king seems to know nothing about this royal birth and shows inordinate interest in when the star appeared (or when the new king was born). It is safe to assume that the Magi’s curiosities and suspicions were both aroused in Jerusalem.
We are indebted to the Jewish historian Josephus for a specific peculiarity of Herod: he enjoyed “cloak-and-dagger” operations and here he attempts to engage his visitors in such an operation. (“When you have found him, bring me word….”) The Magi nonetheless continue their quest to Bethlehem; France provides a touching description of the discovery: “It seems, then, that the star’s movement gave them the final supernatural direction they needed to the specific house where the child was.” (p. 74) Clearly, we are progressing to the climax of the story, when those beyond the pale of the Israelite world come forward to pay homage to the King of the Jews. Foreign men of dignity prostrate themselves on the ground in an average home in a tiny town; they offer gifts of gold (ultimate value), frankincense (a very expensive perfume/incense burned in religious festivals), and myrrh (a luxurious cosmetic fragrance).
These are, in fact, gifts for a king, and in his narrative Matthew has paired the eschatological future described in Isaiah 60 (the first reading) with the reality of the savior and king who is the living climax of history. Matthew goes on to say that the Magi returned home having no contact with Herod. It is unfortunate that the entire Chapter 2 (linked here) is not proclaimed at Mass, for the narrative describes the peril of Jesus at the hands of Herod and the bitter bloodbath that follows. The American Biblical Scholar Father Raymond Brown reminded us in his writings that the Christmas narratives are in truth adult sermons about the nexus between suffering and redemption.