Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
WE CALL TODAY’S FEAST the “Epiphany” but it is really just one of three (if not four) ‘epiphanies’ we are celebrating at this time. ‘Epiphany’ means a ‘showing’ or ‘revelation’ and, at this time, we are remembering and celebrating three ‘revelations’ or ‘showings’ of God: Christmas, today’s feast, and the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The Orthodox Church calls today’s feast a “theophany”, which more explicitly indicates a divine showing, a divine revelation (theos=God).
We could say that today’s Gospel is Matthew’s Christmas story, just as the shepherds coming to the stable is Luke’s Christmas story. The two accounts are quite distinct from each other and have a different thrust or emphasis. In Luke, the stress is on Jesus being God’s revelation to the poor and the rejected. In Matthew, the emphasis is on the universality of Jesus’ mission.
As is normal with him, Matthew is rather vague on details. There are many questions we would like to ask: When exactly did this happen? How soon after the birth of Jesus? Where did it happen? There is no mention of the stable, only of Bethlehem.
Who were the “wise men”? They are called magoi (magoi) in the Greek text, which we render in English as ‘Magi’. Originally a designation of the Persian priestly caste, the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. They were interpreters of dreams and readers of the skies, astrologers, even magicians.
Later, under the influence of the Hebrew Testament texts, they came to be referred to as ‘kings’ e.g. “When kings see you, they will stand up, and princes shall prostrate themselves” (Isaiah 49:7) and “Foreigners shall rebuild your walls, and their king shall be your attendants” (Isaiah 60:10) and Psalm 71 (used in today’s Responsorial Psalm), “The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute. The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts”.
We can also ask, How many wise men were there? Surely three? But, in fact, Matthew does not say. Presumably the number three grew out of there being three gifts. The gifts themselves echo the passage from Isaiah which is the First Reading. As does the tradition that they came on camels (not unlikely, as the camel was the normal transport across the desert).
Following a star
They followed a star. There is a lot of speculation about this star. Was there a comet at that time? Was there a significant conjunction of planets? And how does one follow a star? Or how does one judge when it is “over” a particular place, especially a small house? It would be like trying to find the end of the rainbow! Such questions really miss the point altogether. The special blessing for today links the light of the star with Jesus as the Light of the World.
It was a common belief in ancient times that a new star appeared at the birth of a ruler. Matthew is also drawing, as he so often does, from the Hebrew Testament. In this case it is the story of Balaam, who prophesied that “a star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17).
There is another traditional echo in Herod consulting the chief priests and scribes. Legend has it that “sacred scribes” warned Pharaoh about the imminent birth of one who would deliver Israel from Egypt and the king made plans to destroy him.
What does it all mean?
We are concerned, not with the details of the story but with its meaning. All the Infancy Narratives, both in Matthew and Luke, point symbolically to future events in the life of Jesus. This story is a foreshadowing of the rejection of Jesus by the religious and political leaders of his own people and his acceptance by the Gentiles.
Although Bethlehem was very close to Jerusalem, no Jewish leader is found making his way to visit the Child. Herod’s apparent interest is altogether sinister. “When King Herod heard this [about the birth of the ‘King of the Jews’], he was greatly troubled – and all Jerusalem with him.” His only concern is to get rid, as soon as possible, of a possible rival.
On the other hand, we have these foreigners, these outsiders coming from some far away place – it is not specified and it does not matter – to worship the Child. The contrast is deliberate and is a foretaste of what will very soon happen when the new Church gets under way.
So in today’s Second Reading from Ephesians we read:
“This mystery [about Christ] that has now been revealed through the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets was unknown to any in past generations; it means that Gentiles now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel.”
Today’s celebration then is reminding us that for God there are no foreigners, no outsiders. Everyone can pray “our” Father. There is not one single exception. And if God is Father/Mother of every single person, then every single person in this world is my sister or brother.
The call then today is to live my life in such a way that in my words to people and about people, in my actions with people, I will never act in any way except as a caring brother or sister.
The ‘magi’ were not, as we often depict them under the influence of Isaiah, really kings wearing splendid garments.
They were astrologers who interpreted present, past and future happenings by the movements and conjunctions of sun, moon, stars and planets.
The lives of most people in those days were influenced by these interpretations.They were the central part of lives lived in superstition and the fear of forces totally beyond their control.
People tried to appease these powers by all kinds of spells or by identifying some of these stellar forces with gods who had to be appeased.
The ‘magi’ represented all these beliefs, superstitions and fears.
But today they come and prostrate themselves before the Child who represents the true force in people’s lives – the love of God.The real source and goal of all living is union with God, represented and made accessible to us in this Child, God Incarnate.
And they are led to the Child by a star.Their lives were occupied with watching the movements of stars.But this was a new star they had never seen before.It led them to Jesus, the Son of God.They now forgot all other stars and bowed down, offered precious gifts (the earnings of their astrology), laid them at the feet of the Child and worshipped him.
This Child is the new and only Star with a message of Good News for the whole world.That message is the coming of God’s Kingdom.
We can link all this with the prediction of the end times described later on in Matthew:
“The sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses.Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky; and all the peoples of earth will weep as they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt 24:29-31).