Sunday, January 3, 2016: Feast of the Epiphany
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Matthew 2: 1-12
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.
There is a businessman’s train that runs daily between Colon, Panama, at the northern entrance to the Canal, and the outskirts of Panama City, the southern end of the canal. Last year my cruise ship arranged for us to take the train along the entire length of the Canal for sightseeing purposes. I could not help but notice that we cruisers were the only ones on the train, so I asked the guide about that. The answer: our trip happened to fall on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which in Panama is a national/federal holiday. When I married my wife, who had spent a good portion of her adult life in Puerto Rico, she reminded me that in Hispanic culture the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, is a day of great cultural and religious significance. It is good to remember these things when we address the observance of Epiphany in the United States.
There is a rather wide divergence on the meaning and priority of the feasts of the Incarnation between eastern and western Christianity as well. There is a wealth of good information on the development of the Christmas feasts, and I find Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning in the Reform of the Liturgy (1981, 1990) a very useful source on this subject. It came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that in Eastern Christendom, for example, the January 6 observance of the Epiphany actually combined three distinct events: (1) the visit to the young Jesus by the Magi; (2) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and (3) the miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana. It is not surprising, then, that in much of the Christian world the Epiphany takes preference over the December 25 feast.
In the Roman Missal used in the United States, something of the Epiphany’s grandeur is lost by the fact that in most years the feast is not celebration in union with other Catholics and Christians around the world on January 6. In the post-Vatican II reform, conferences of bishops were given permission to transfer the feast to the first Sunday after the Octave of Christmas (i.e. to a date between January 2 and January 7. (There is a similar transfer of the Ascension, from its traditional Thursday setting to the following Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, in many but not all dioceses of the U.S.) The permission to transfer such important feasts may have liturgical roots in the principle of the sanctity of the Sunday observance, or it may be a concession that in the U.S., for example, people just “don’t do midweek solemnities.”
In America this weekend we will hear Matthew’s Gospel, a selection from his own Christmas narrative, which differs in considerable ways from Luke’s, who makes no mention of the wise men or Herod. To best understand Matthew’s unique inclusion, it is very helpful—necessary, in fact—to look at the first reading from Isaiah, using the USCCB link above. Isaiah 60 comes from the apocalyptic tradition of prophesy. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing Jewish messianic expectation in a monolithic fashion, that everyone over twelve centuries looked forward to a wondrous king, the true Son of David. (At Palm Sunday Mass, we hear the crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”)
However, Israel already had a long line of “sons of David,” a monarchical succession extending from Saul, David, and Solomon to the unfortunate soul who oversaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity around 590 BC. While many returning Jews maintained the hope of a new David to deliver them from a new series of conquerors, the Romans most of all, there grew a significant body of biblical literature that—with its apocalyptic/prophetic stance, began to conceive of the future in a new and glorious way—a victory of faith rather than the sword. The author of Isaiah 60—and many like him—came to understand that Israel’s destiny was not to conquer the planet as it had Canaan under a kingly/military savior. Rather, such prophets saw the role of Israel in the world as the religious center of the earth, the light of the nations, the “city on the hill” image that so captivated early settlers in North America centuries later.
Isaiah 60 describes the futuristic pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth. Clearly Matthew drew from this source in depicting a vignette in which wise men/magi/astrologers (the best and the most insightful of the pagan world) would come bearing a curious array of gifts symbolic of both majesty and suffering—a gesture of remarkable pagan insight when you think of it. Matthew observes that these pagans prostrated themselves and rendered homage to the person of Jesus. These wise men are the first of the pagans who would stream to Jesus and his subsequent community as the New Jerusalem, a procession that would last until the end of time.
If Luke’s Christmas narrative is an attempt to bring the Hebrew past into the experience of Jesus of Nazareth and his community of believers, Matthew’s Christmas narrative takes the early Judeo-Christian Church into the universal salvation of the future. Next year in Cycle A we will have the opportunity to pick up the Matthean theme of Jesus as the new Moses, establishing the Kingdom of God as the City on the Hill where the Sons of Abraham, by their faith and witness, would draw the truly wise from all times and all nations.