Thursday, January 02, 2014

"Your Light Has Come": A Look at the Readings for Epiphany Sunday

This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany. The term is derived from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon” and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Literally, the word means, "to shine upon" or "to make manifest".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that, "The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world" (CCC 528).

In fact, one little known fact about the feast is that the Epiphany isn't simply linked in Church tradition to the story of the coming of the magi to visit the Christ child.

The Catechism explains that Epiphany also celebrates two other major events in which Jesus' messianic identity is revealed: his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana (cf. CCC 528).

Here, however, we will focus on the readings, which climax with the visit of the magi.

FIRST READING: 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 comebearing gold and frankincense,and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Here we have a passage describing the final restoration of Jerusalem. Three ideas stand out.

1. The Return of the Lord to Zion and the Return of His People

Notably, the city is spoken of as a woman. The "you" used throughout the passage is a feminine pronoun. In Isaiah God frequently addresses Jerusalem this way, referring to it as "daughter of Zion" (Isa 1:8; 10:32; 62:11).

A major theme in Isaiah is the idea that in the messianic age God will regather his people in the temple at Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Of course, Israel, which had existed as a kingdom including all twelve tribes during the reigns of David and Solomon, had been scattered to the nations. The prophets, however, announced the hope that in the future age God would regather his people at the temple in Mt. Zion.

This idea is found right at the start of the book of Isaiah. In chapter 2 we read:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths (Isa 2:2–3).
Notice here that the "mountain of the Lord", i.e., Zion, is inseparably linked to the "house of the God of Jacob".

The theme of "return" is, therefore, central in Isaiah 60.

1. Israel will return, i.e., regathered: "they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses"

2. God will return: God is coming to once again dwell in Jerusalem. His glory--which had left the temple--will return and he will be with his people. 

2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles

Of course, in Isaiah 60, as in Isaiah 2, it is not only Israel that is said to be gathered to the Lord in the messianic age. The nations, i.e., Gentiles, will walk by the light of the Lord as well. 

In fact, Gentiles will come bearing "gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD". 

It might be especially significant that people from Sheba are mentioned here. According to the Old Testament, during the reign of King Solomon--when all the tribes of Israel still dwelt in the land and the Lord was worshipped in the temple--even Gentiles came to worship the God of Israel. 

1 Kings 4:21 tells us that Solomon, the son of David, ". . . ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life". 

Specifically, 1 Kings 10 tells us that the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, and, upon hearing his wisdom, blessed the God of Israel. Moreover, she gave gifts, including spices. 

It is hard to be sure, but the imagery of Gentiles from Sheba bearing gifts of frankincense seems like an allusion to the story of Solomon. In other words, Isaiah envisions a kind of restoration of Solomonic proportions. Actually, it will be even greater than that!  

3. The Glorification of Jerusalem

In the messianic age, Jerusalem will be glorified: it shall, "Rise up in splendor". 

God is coming to not only make his own glory manifest but to share it with his people! Nations shall walk by the shining radiance of Jerusalem, whose source of light is ultimately the Lord. 

A Christian reader can't help but think here of New Testament passages that describe the saints being "glorified". Paul speaks of the hope of "sharing the glory of God" (Rom 5:2). He explains that those whom God has "justified" he also "glorified" (Rom 8:30). In 1 Corinthians he explains that he has come to impart the wisdom of God, "which god decreed before the ages for our glorification" (1 Cor 2:7).

In fact, for St. Paul the true temple is not a building in Jerusalem. The t
emple is the body of Christ, the Church. He writes in 1 Corinthians, 
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20)
Notice, glorification is already found in the here and now--the body of Christ is the true temple and believers already share the glory of God! 

Moreover, in light of the New Testament, it might be thought significant that the New Jerusalem will be glorified as it "rises". It is not hard to see how the Fathers caught allusions to resurrection imagery here.

In fact, Isaiah itself seems to point to such an idea. Elsewhere Isaiah links the future restoration of God's people to such language. 
Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall. (Isa 26:19)
It may not be entirely wrongheaded to read Isaiah 60 in light of this passage. Not only does this prophecy use the same word for "rise" as we find in Isaiah 60:1, both passages also contain the motif of "light".

In short, the people of God receive their light--their glorification--in association with resurrection imagery. 

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;
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 superscription reads of Psalm 72 reads, “A Psalm of Solomon”. However, the preposition translated "of" is ambiguous. It could mean a psalm "by Solomon" or a psalm "about Solomon." Given the fact that it ends with the statement, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended”, it seems most likely that it was read as a song sung by David about Solomon.[1] Indeed, this fits well within the biblical perspective that David saw his own son take the throne.

The psalm, then, is best read as a celebration of the worldwide dominion of the Davidic kingdom under Solomon. Above I offered the suggestion that Isaiah 60 envisions a kind of Solomonic restoration. The use of the psalm here might suggest the lectionary intends that view as well. 

While much more could be said about this song, we can here point out one more thing: the psalm's description of Solomon's reign as extending to "the ends of the earth" calls to mind the Acts 1, where Jesus, whom Luke reveals as the true Son of David, explains that his disciples will be his witnesses "to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

From the perspective of the New Testament, then, we can say that the prayer for the son of David to reign over all nations is fulfilled in Christ and through the ministry of the Church.

SECOND READING: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
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.
The second reading from Paul picks up many of the themes of the first reading, showing us how what had been anticipated in the book of Isaiah has now become a reality in the New Covenant: God has revealed himself and has made the Gentiles sharers in Christ. 
Given my commentary above, I can't help but point out that here Ephesians describes the inclusion of the Gentiles in terms of being "members of the same body" and that immediately before these verses Paul speaks of the body of Christ as a temple! 
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
What kind of temple "grows"? A temple-body, i.e., the body of Christ!

The true temple is the body of Christ, the Church, which receives the glory of Christ, who dwells within her. 

GOSPEL: 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.
Much could be said about this passage. Indeed, I did a full podcast on the magi's visit--you can listen to it here.  

Rather than write a lengthy commentary on this reading let me just highlight the following.

1. Jesus as the Davidic Messiah

The Gospel reading emphasizes an aspect of Jesus' identity that relates to the commentary above from the first reading and the psalm, namely, Jesus' identity as the true Son of David. Like David, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Of course, Matthew explains how in this the messianic prophecy of Micah 5:2 is fulfilled in Jesus. 

Jesus' Davidic pedigree is a major theme in Matthew. Of course, the very first verse of the Gospel identifies him as "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1). For a fuller treatment, see the first section of this paper of mine, recently published in Journal for the Study of Biblical Literature. 

That Jesus is identified by simply being with his mother ("they saw the child with Mary his mother" - note that Joseph is not mentioned) may also relate to Jesus' Davidic identity. In the Old Testament, the validity of the Davidic king as heir to the throne was closely linked with the role of the Queen Mother, called the giberah. Of course, in the Davidic kingdom, the Queen was not simply the wife of the king but his mother. 

The office is mentioned numerous times: 
"[Asa] also removed Maacah his mother from being queen mother because she had an abominable image made for Asherah. . .” (1 Kgs. 15:13) 
"Even Maacah, his mother, King Asa removed from being queen mother because she had made an abominable image for Asherah." (2 Chr. 15:16) 
"Jehu met the kinsmen of Ahaziah king of Judah, and he said, “Who are you?” And they answered, “We are the kinsmen of Ahaziah, and we came down to visit the royal princes and the sons of the queen mother." (2 Kgs. 10:13) 
Say to the king and the queen mother: “Take a lowly seat, for your beautiful crown has come down from your head.” (Jer. 13:18)  
This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.” ( Jer. 29:2)
Furthermore, all the Davidic kings except three [2] are mentioned with a Queen Mother—not a wife. The Davidic king is identified with his mother. For example,  
In the twentieth year of Jeroboam king of Israel Asa began to reign over Judah, 10 and he reigned forty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Maacah the daughter of Abishalom. (1 Kgs 15:9-10) 
Jehoshaphat the son of Asa began to reign over Judah in the fourth year of Ahab king of Israel. 42 Jehoshaphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. (1 Kgs 22:41-42) 
In the twelfth year of Joram the son of Ahab, king of Israel, Ahaziah the son of Jehoram, king of Judah, began to reign. 26 Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah; she was a granddaughter of Omri king of Israel. (2 Kgs 8:25-26) 
Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah, the granddaughter of Omri. 3 He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counselor in doing wickedly. (2 Chron 22:2-3) 

See also: 2 Kgs 12:1; 14:1; 15:1-2; 15:32-33; 18:1-2; 2 Kgs 22:1; 21:19; 22:1; 23:31; 23:36; 24:8 

For Matthew, if Jesus is the Davidic Messiah-King, Mary is important as well: she is the Queen Mother. 

2. The “Star” 

No treatment here would be complete with reference to the famous star. The image of a star announcing the birth of the Messiah seems to draw on a prophecy from Numbers.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom shall be dispossessed . . .” (Num 24:17–19)
A star here is linked with the coming of one with a scepter--a king. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that this passage was understood by Jews in Jesus' day as predicting the coming of the Messiah (cf. CD 7:18-21).

The prospect of a rival royal figure would likely have upset Herod. However, a search in the Scriptures for a relevant prophecy to explain the magi's arrival at the sight of a star, would likely have turned up this oracle from Numbers.

If this prophecy was brought to Herod's attention, the last line cited here would have surely caught his eye: "Edom shall be dispossessed."

Herod's kingship was tenuous at best. He styled himself king of the Jewish people but not only wasn't he a "son of David", he wasn't even an Israelite. Herod was Idumaen--he was an "Edomite"!

That the birth of this child coincided with imagery from a prophecy (a star) that specifically predicted that "Edom" would be overcome was surely a factor in his mad rage that resulted in the slaughter of the innocent children born at the time of Jesus.

3. The Worship and Gifts of the Magi

The arrival of the magi highlights the inclusion of what are likely non-Israelites--Gentiles--in the messianic age! (For more on the precise identity of the magi listen to the podcast).

Of course, as the magi also bring three gifts (NB: it never actually says that there were three of them, only that they brought three gifts): gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts have been interpreted differently in Christian tradition. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3, 9, 2) they highlight the mystery of Christ's kingship (gold), his divinity (frankincense=incense, used for worship), and his death (myrrh was used for anointing the dead. gifts of the Magi signify the mystery of Christ incarnate. Gold, a symbol of royalty, represents the kingship of Jesus.

Gregory the Great (Hom. in Evan. 10) holds that they symbolize what we present to Christ in our daily life: Christ's wisdom in us (gold), prayer and adoration (frankincense), and our daily sacrifices (myrrh).

Notably, the Magi are said to "worship" the Christ child. The word here proskyneō can either be used for the adoration given God or, more simply, for honoring a royal or civic official. The question is, which meaning is in view here?

That Jesus' Davidic messiahship is emphasized in the scene would lead the reader to the first meaning. However, Jesus later tells the devil in Matthew 4 that "worship" (proskyneō) should be given to God alone (cf. Matt 4:9–10; Acts 10:25–26; Rev 19:10; 22:8–9). This makes it difficult to see the magi's "worship" as mere "homage" to a king.

Indeed, the emphasis in Matthew 1 on Jesus' role as "Immanuel"--"God with us"--further reinforces his divinity. That the book ends with a statement on Jesus' ongoing presence with the disciples in Matthew 28:20 can't be insignificant. "God is with us" in the person of Jesus Christ.

Read in light of the whole Gospel, then, the worship of the magi reveals that Jesus is not simply the Davidic king, he is divine!

The lectionary readings, therefore, reveal that God has come in the person of Jesus.

Yet, contrary to what one might expect, God has arrived and true worship of him by Gentiles has taken place not in the city of Jerusalem but in Bethlehem. Indeed, the ending of Matthew's Gospel, which involves his leading the disciples to a nondescript mountain in Galilee (not Mt. Zion!) further reinforces the idea that the true Zion is not geographically located on a map.

The true temple is found in the person of Christ (cf. Matt. 12:6). And what was said about Jerusalem--e.g., that it would be a light to the world--is said about believers (cf. Matt. 5:14).

The New Jerusalem is not simply an earthly metropolis. As other books of the New Testament such as Revelation will explain, it is the Church. God is with us in the person of Christ. His presence is especially known in the liturgical ministry of the Church (see, e.g., the link between baptism and his presence in Matt. 28:20).

Let us greet Christ this Sunday as he comes to bring glory to his people who are taken from all peoples! 


[1] See Robert Cole, The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73-89)(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 182: “Psalm 72 is the culmination of David’s prayers, according to the final verse (20) of its doxology. . . thereby interpreting the superscription as ‘for’, not ‘by’ Solomon.”

[2] Asa’s mother is not mentioned probably because his grandmother Maacah continued to reign even after the death of her son (cf. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, 118). Del Moral suggests that the other two, Ahaz (28:1) and Jehoram (2 Chron 21:6) are listed without their mother’s because of their wicked deeds (“Santa Maria, La Guebiráh Mesiánica,” Communio (Spanish ed.) 13 (1980): 25 [3–70].
For example, 

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

I listened to the podcast. In reference to thoughts about the Magi, I’ve been wondering if Melchizedek, and his meeting with Abram, together formed a prophetic sign pointing to the remnant chosen by grace (Rom.11:5).
I understand that both the physical lineage of the Jewish nation goes back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-17), and the faith of the new covenant, specifically the faith of a Gentile Christ believer, traces back to Abraham as well (Gal. 3:6-9).
In the victorious meeting between Abram and Melchizedek, Melchizedek blessed Abram, and Abram gave a 10th of everything to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). It seems their meeting is a prophetic sign of both the lessor being blessed by the greater (Heb.7:7-10), and the root supporting the branch (Rom. 11:18).
For just as Levi was still in the body of his ancestor (Heb. 7:10), the spirit of prophesy was yet to be born through Mary (Rev.19:10), even though He existed before Abraham (John 8:58).