3 January 2016: Epiphany of the Lord

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

Epiphany: the Gift is made present to all

Today the believing community celebrates the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, which means “shining upon” or “manifestation,” is also called “little Christmas” or “Three King’s day,” and, in many places, is the day to exchange gifts. Traditionally, Orthodox and Roman churches celebrate Epiphany on 6 January as the twelfth day of Christmas. Because of the feast’s importance, the United States bishops moved the Epiphany celebration to the preceding Sunday. The feast commemorates the visit of the magi (or “wise men”) to Jesus. The Lectionary editors give us a larger context and meaning for this feast.

The first reading is from the prophet Isaiah. After the Hebrews return from their Babylonian exile, Isaiah urges them to rebuild Judah and Jerusalem. He promises that God will restore the people and city to its former glory under David. Note that God’s restoration draws “all nations” to Jerusalem. These foreign (gentile) kings will bring “gold and frankincense” as tribute and gifts.

The second reading is from the Letter to the Ephesians. The author (a disciple writing in Paul’s name) summarizes the reason for Paul’s mission as apostle to the gentiles: that God’s kingdom includes all–gentiles as well as the Jewish people. Together the Jews and gentiles are “co-heirs, co-members of the Body of Christ (the ekklesia), and co-partners in the gospel promise.” All are invited into God’s kingdom.

Matthew’s gospel recounts the magi’s visit. Mathew places this story early in his gospel to show Jesus’ full identity:

  • King of the Jews: The magi are astrologers (early astronomers) who discern Jesus’ title based on naturally occurring celestial events (the star). They ask Herod, who was given the title “King of the Jews” by his Roman overlords, “where can we find the King of the Jews?” Awkward! Herod calls his Jewish priests and scribes and asks “What do you know about this?” They search the Hebrew scripture and find the prophet Micah’s prophecy that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Matthew shows that both nature and scripture reveal Jesus’ identity to all who seek him.
  • Due homage: The magi come to “do him homage.” Here and throughout this passage, Matthew uses the Greek word προσκυνέω (“pros-koo-NEH-oh”) which means “to prostrate before,” “to adore,” or “to worship.” Matthew shows that the magi–gentiles–recognize that Jesus is worthy not only of human honor, but of divine worship.
  • Gifts foretell Jesus’ destiny: The magi give Jesus not only honor and worship, they also give him symbolic gifts. Gold is an appropriate gift for a human ruler. Incense is a gift offered (burned) to honor a divinity. Myrrh is spice used as a salve and for embalming. Matthew shows that the magi–gentiles–recognize Jesus’ kingship, his divinity, and his mission to suffer and die.

Coming at the end of the Christmas season, Epiphany calls RCIA participants–and all of us–to reflect on the impact of Jesus’ incarnation. God’s gift of God-made-flesh and God-with-us is given to us without any possibility of our repayment. The Incarnation, like all sacraments, is God’s superabundant presence. Epiphany–manifestation–tells us that God is found everywhere (God’s kingdom is already here), God is worthy of our worship, and God’s giving-ness fuels our mission to give our own lives in service. What are we doing with God’s Christmas gift?

–Terence Sherlock

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