Gospel for Feast of Epiphany (3 January 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where
the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
“(The author of Matthew’s Gospel) started from what he knew had happened (the account of the visit of the Magi ‘has on the face of it all the elements of historical probability,’ (The Anchor Bible, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew, 1971) and brought forward passages from Scripture to show that all was in accordance with prophecy than that the prophecy led to the creation of beautiful stories that lacked factual foundation. Matthew may well have included this story to bring out the truth that Jesus is Lord of all peoples; since this is so, it was appropriate that at the time of his infancy people came from a distant Gentile country to pay their homage. In this narrative the Jews and their king are ranged against the infant Jesus, but Gentiles do him homage. There will also be the motif that the purposes of God cannot be overthrown. Earthly kings like Herod may try to circumvent the divine purpose, but in the end they are always defeated. And, of course, there is the strong motif of the fulfilment of Scripture; Matthew finds events in the life of Jesus from the earliest days foretold in the holy writings.” (L Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 34-35.)
This is a profoundly theological text. The Gospels are not journalistic accounts or reports of the “facts” – whatever that might mean. They are faith documents. They bear witness to the revelation of God in the facts of history. That is never more so than here. The entry of God into our world in the flesh is revealed. Ironically – and this irony is frequently present in the Gospels – the chosen people are the last to recognize this.
The English word epiphany comes from the Greek words epi meaning “forth” and phainein meaning “to show”. In our Christian tradition the feast of Epiphany celebrates the revealing or manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus. This happens in a brutal world. King Herod (74-4 BCE) was a profligate man, willing to do anything to gain power including killing members of his own family. He died about the time Jesus was born. Today’s Gospel tells us that Herod was “perturbed” at the news of the birth of “the infant king”. The presence of Jesus – the revelation of eternal love – perturbs Herod, the man of immense earthly power?
Martin Luther King Jnr gave his last Christmas sermon in 1967, just four months before he was assassinated. In that sermon he said: “I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I've seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens' councillors, and too many Klansmen
of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we'll still love you. But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory’." (Read the full text of the sermon: http://www.ecoflourish.com/Primers/education/Christmas_Sermon.html )
Our happiness lies in being epiphanies!