Thursday, January 03, 2013

Come to the Light: The Readings for Epiphany

The Christmas season can sometimes seem to be just one joyful feast after another.  We are scarcely past the glow from the Holy Family and Mary, Mother of God, when Epiphany is already upon us.

The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon”; and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Therefore, the “Epiphany” refers to the divinity of Jesus “shining upon” the earth, in other words, the manifestation of his divine nature.

The use of the word “epiphany” for the revelation of divinity predates Christianity.  The Syrian (Seleucid) emperor Antiochus IV (175-164 BC), the villainous tyrant of 1-2 Maccabees, named himself “Epiphanes,” because he considered himself the manifestation of divinity on earth.  His people called him “Epimanes,” which means roughly “something is pressing on the brain,” in other words, “insane.”  Antiochus tried to stamp out the practice of Judaism, but he eventually died in defeat; apparently mankind would need to wait for a different king to be the “Epiphany” of divinity.

1.  Our First Reading is taken from Isaiah 60:1-6:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.

Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

In this passage from Isaiah, God addresses the city of Jerusalem as a woman—the “you” throughout the passage is a feminine singular pronoun.  This is typical of Isaiah, who elsewhere speaks of Jerusalem as “the daughter of Zion” (Isa 62:11) or even “the virgin daughter of Zion” (Isa 37:22).  Zion, of course, was the ridge on which David built the royal palace, and was thus the heart of the city, which in turn was the heart of Judah, which was the heart of Israel.  Thus “Zion” or “Jerusalem” often represent the entire chosen people of God.

As Christians, we understand “Jerusalem” and “Zion” to refer now to the Church, which is the “heavenly Jerusalem” (see Heb 12:22).  In a particular way, the Church is embodied in Mary, the mother of the Church.  Mary is “the virgin daughter of Zion” in a unique way.  After all, since Zion was the royal district of Jerusalem, the “virgin daughter of Zion” referred particularly to the virgin daughters of the king, the royal princesses who were the most beautiful, accomplished, and celebrated young women in the city.  Mary was this virgin daughter of the royal line, a descendant of David.  As Mary saw the camel caravans of the Magi arriving at her humble home, laden with gifts fit for a king, brought from distant Gentile lands, the words of Isaiah 60:1-6 found a special fulfillment: “You shall be radiant at what you see … the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.”  As Pope Benedict XVI remarks in his recent book on the infancy narratives, “Mary appears as the daughter of Zion in person.  The Zion prophecies are fulfilled in her in an unexpected way” (p. 28)

To summarize, in this First Reading, (Isa 60), the prophet foresees a day when divine light shall shine all over God’s people, attracting the nations who will be grateful for this light.  The presence of God within his people will draw not only the traditional people of God (Israel), but even distant nations with very different cultures, like Sheba (either southern Arabia or Ethiopia).  As we will see, this prophecy has important connections with the Gospel Reading.

2. The Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 72) is one of the most important in the collection of 150 Psalms.  It comes at the end of Book II of the Psalter (i.e. Psalms 42-72), one of the most optimistic of the five Books of Psalms, surpassed for joyfulness only by Book V (Psalms 107-150).  Psalm 72 is labeled “of Solomon,” but was traditionally understood as a psalm written by David about Solomon rather than one authored by Solomon himself.  It describes the utopian peace and posterity that prevailed during the early part of Solomon’s reign, when he followed God’s law and enjoyed all the blessings of the Davidic covenant.  Indeed, Psalm 72 is an emotional and spiritual high point of the Psalter, just as Solomon’s reign was a high point of the history of the people of Israel:

R. (cf. 11) Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king's son [i.e. Solomon];
He shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
Justice shall flower in his days,
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;
the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.

The reign of Solomon is an important anticipation or type of the reign of Christ and the establishment of the Church.  Solomon ruled over a multi-national empire (1 Kings 4:21), an empire that foreshadowed the multi-national spiritual empire that is the Catholic Church.  Solomon’s wisdom was so renowned that wise men came to hear him from all nations, even from the East (1 Kings 4:29-34).  Likewise, the last time that caravans arrived in Jerusalem bearing gold and frankincense from Sheba (mentioned in the First Reading) was during Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 10:10).  Of course, this only happened when Solomon was at the height of his power.  Jesus outdoes Solomon, because even as a toddler, the wise men of the East are already coming to him to acknowledge his greatness and show him honor.  Jesus is a better, wiser Son of David than even Solomon himself.

3.  The Second Reading is taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In it, St. Paul speaks of a “mystery” of God that has only now been revealed to the world, namely, that the Gentiles (non-Israelite nations) are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

We so take it for granted that “all people are God’s children” that it’s hard to re-create the sensation of novelty that St. Paul and other early Jewish Christians felt at the concept that the pagan nations were being invited by God into his covenant people.  Certainly most Jews in antiquity did not foresee this: the Essenes at Qumran, who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought the future of the Gentiles was only destruction or servile subjugation under a world-wide Israelite empire. 

This is one subject on which the Essenes did not reason correctly from the Scriptures, because there are a wealth of direct and indirect Old Testament prophecies of the Gentiles sharing the glory of God with Israel in the end times, including Isaiah 60 read above.  The connection of St. Paul’s words with Epiphany is clear: the Gentile Magi from the East, coming to worship Jesus, are a foretaste and anticipation of age of the Church, when the doors to salvation will be thrown wide open to all the nations of the earth.  Many of us watched the Pope’s tradition Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas day.  This annual “state of the world” address given by the Pope traditionally concludes with the Holy Father offering greetings and blessing to the gathered pilgrims in sixty some world languages.  It is a moving sight to witness this, and here the cheers of each language group gathered in the plaza at the feet of the successor of Peter as he speaks to them in their own tongue.  It is a visible sign of the fulfillment of the word of the ancient prophets of Israel, that one day the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be worshiped in all the nations of the earth.  Who would have thought this possible in Isaiah’s day, when the nation of Israel was being reduced to a tiny vassal kingdom in southern Palestine, and would soon cease to exist as an independent state?

4.  The Gospel Reading is the account of the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) to worship the child Jesus (Matt 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.

The Magi were learned men, the academics or scientists of their day.  Their knowledge base would have included the fundamentals of astronomy, which was not distinct from astrology in antiquity.

The character of Herod in our Gospel reading fits the personality of Herod as recorded by ancient historians.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod was a brutal tyrant, perhaps partly insane, who executed large numbers of political opponents as well as members of his own family, including several of his wives and sons.  A Machiavellian before Machiavelli, Herod’s primary goal in life was to maintain his own power, and he was constantly vigilant against possible threats to it, especially those who claimed to fulfill the royal prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures.  He was supremely paranoid, and no doubt much of the city and his court were not pleased at the arrival of the Magi with their “politically incorrect” inquiries about a newborn king.  If Herod became disturbed, people would die.

The gifts that the Magi bring are rich in biblical symbolism.  “Frankincense and myrrh” are only mentioned together in the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon, where they are nuptial perfumes employed by Solomon and his bride to prepare for their marriage.  Here in Matthew, Jesus is being marked out as Bridegroom King from his birth.  At the same time, “gold and frankincense” are only mentioned together in the Scriptures in the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6, part of our First Reading.  So, there is an obvious association of Jesus with the “light” predicted by Isaiah, which is associated with the miraculous star that brings the Magi to the Christ Child.  Speaking of this star, numerous suggestions—some quite intriguing—have been made over the years for the identification of this celestial object.   However, some of the church fathers (e.g. Origen) already pointed out that the star in question had to be a supernatural object, since natural stars do not move or stand still, nor are they able to mark a terrestrial location as small as Bethlehem, much less an individual house.  Without being dogmatic on the issue, I believe the star was a supernatural appearance to these Magi.  God communicated to them using a language they understood: the language of the stars.

As we ponder the meaning of these sacred Readings for ourselves this weekend, we are struck first by the fulfillment of the prophecies of the gathering of the nations to Christ.  Now at the beginning of the third millennium, one in three inhabitants of the globe identifies him- or her-self as a follower of Christ, a total of 2.2 billion, of whom half are Catholics.  Even when the last New Testament writer wrote, the population of Christians was at best in the tens of thousands, mostly Greek-speaking and concentrated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  The incredible expansion of this “Jewish cult” to lands unknown would have seen absurd in those ancient days.  In modern times, the faith has exploded in areas that were once closed to the Church.  Sub-saharan Africa, in which the numbers of Christians were negligible even a hundred years ago, is now around 60% Christian. Though there is always and at all times an ongoing spiritual battle, it is true that a multitude from all nations has gathered to the Light.

On another level, we see in the Magi representatives of the scholars and academics, those who give their lives to learning, to the acquisition of wisdom.  These Magi, however, are not wise guys but Wise Men, who demonstrate a true wisdom.  In some way, we do not know how clearly, they saw in this child a gift of God to mankind, a sign of the love of God for humanity.  True wisdom recognizes wisdom’s limits.  There is something higher than wisdom, and that is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).  Love is the ultimate wisdom.  These intellectuals get down on their knees and bow before something greater than themselves: the Love of God, a Love which is a humble and unthreatening as a baby in his mother’s lap.  Far from detracting from their wisdom, their humility in the face of Love enhances it.  We should follow their example.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Wonderful insights and reflections for us. Thanks. I tend to look at Herod as our government today. So, I have a question:
Today's Herod also wishes to find the Child and destroy it. When the Magi found the newborn King they left by another way, should we as Christians avoid confrontation with the government and spread the Good News in other ways?

Bob Fahey said...

Another way in this context could mean that once we encounter Christ we do travel a different way than where we once were headed. I don't think we should avoid confrontation nor do I think we should engage in it, just let the chips fall where they may. Little do we know what God's will might be for our current situation with our own rulers.

John Bergsma said...

The Magi were not citizens of Herod's country and had no obligation to it. I suspect our responsibilities are different in a country like the US, where citizens have the power of the vote and the right and obligation of free speech. Engaging the culture takes discernment, however, and winning hearts may require a different approach than winning arguments.