Gospel for Feast of the Epiphany (8 January 2017)
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. (Matthew 2:1-12 – NRSV)
“Many scholars have declined to see anything historical in this chapter. They point to the fact that all kinds of legends were in circulation about the infant Moses and that while the heyday of such legends came later, Josephus is evidence that wonderful stories about Moses were in circulation at this time (Ant. 2.205–7, 215–16). These scholars suggest that the author of this Gospel, moved by such stories, is manufacturing tales to bring out the greatness of Jesus. Matthew is simply concerned to improve on previous models (“anything they can do we can do better”!). Others hold that the Old Testament quotations in the chapter form the clue to what went on. They think that there was a collection of testimonia circulating in the early church, passages taken from the Old Testament to show that Jesus was the Messiah and that everything in his life was done in accordance with the plan of God. The author of this Gospel, they hold, started from such a collection and manufactured fulfilments of prophecy in the birth at Bethlehem, importantly in the place of Gentiles from the first, and in general improving on the Moses stories.
“Clearly there is a large subjective element in such reconstructions. That there were stories about Moses does not require us to think that a writer about Jesus would manufacture similar stories (and anyway, apart from the protection of the child, the resemblances are minor). We may agree with some scholars that Matthew regards Moses as in some respects a ‘type’ of Christ, but we can scarcely say more. The existence of testimonia, while held by many, is far from certain. And even if they did exist, we have no evidence that the writer of this Gospel used them as a basis for composing stories about Jesus. It is much more probable that he 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’, 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.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 34.)
In the time of King Herod: The Roman Senate appointed Herod king in 40 BC but he actually began his reign in 37 BC. He probably died in 4 BC. Herod was not a Jew by birth but was raised as a Jew. His father was an Idumean and his mother an Arabian. “He was an unscrupulous tyrant, but his achievements were such that he merited the epithet “the Great.” He was a great builder and was responsible for the erection of the temple in Jerusalem, the rebuilding of Samaria (which he called Sebaste in honor of the emperor), and other significant works. And, in the words of Barclay, “He was the only ruler of Palestine who ever succeeded in keeping the peace and in bringing order into disorder.” (Leon Morris, op cit. 35.) Jesus was probably born in 7 or 6 BC, just before Herod the Great died.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea: “When he was telling us about Jesus’ birth Matthew did not say where it took place, but he now informs his readers that it was at Bethlehem of Judea. This distinguishes it from another Bethlehem in Galilee (Josh. 19:15), and more importantly directs attention to the fact that it was the royal city, the place where the great David was born. This is part of the way Matthew indicates Jesus’ messiahship. The location was not important for what he had to say in chapter 1 (in the birth story he does not say where Jesus was born), but it matters a great deal for what comes before us now. The name Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” that is, a granary. Matthew speaks of Bethlehem 5 times, but Luke (twice) and John (once) are the only other New Testament writers to refer to it. It was evidently not considered an important place. It was located about 5 miles (or 8 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. Judea, here as in most places, indicates the southern part of Palestine (in contrast to Samaria, etc.); it can mean the region occupied by the Jewish nation (Luke 1:5), and it may be used in such a way as to include territory on the east of the Jordan (19:1).” (Leon Morris, op cit, 35.)
wise men: The English word “wise” translates the Greek magos. It may also mean “magician”. It is made clear that these “wise men” get their wisdom from studying the stars.
the child who has been born king of the Jews: The wise men use a title that we will hear three more times in Matthew’s Gospel – see 27:11, 29 & 37. And the correct translation is past tense – “has been born king” – not future tense – “born to be king (in the future)”. This child is already king!
all the chief priests and scribes of the people: There was only one high priest and he was appointed for life. Joachim Jeremias notes: “So we receive the following picture. The captain of the Temple, who was responsible for the conduct of worship and external arrangements in the Temple, was the most important priest immediately below the high priest, and was the head of the chief priests. After him came the leader of the weekly course of priests, whichever course was on duty, and the leaders of the four to nine daily courses of this week. The organization of external arrangements in the Temple was in the hands of the seven permanent Temple overseers, to which belonged four chief Levites; financial arrangements were entrusted to the three permanent Temple treasurers and their colleagues. The chief priests permanently employed at the Temple formed a definite body who had jurisdiction over the priesthood and whose members had seats and votes on the council.” (Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus – 180 found online at: http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/jremias2.pdf ) Herod would have had quite a number of “chief priests and scribes” he could call on for advice.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea: The chief priests and scribes know exactly where the Messiah is to be born – contrary to John 7:27. They refer to the Prophet Micah 5:2. Their refusal to believe in Jesus is not due to ignorance but willfulness. The gentile wise men see and proclaim what the representatives of the Chosen People are unwilling to see and proclaim.
gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: “Matthew specifies three gifts (from which some deduce that there were three Magi; legend has made them three kings (an idea which Bruce calls ‘beautiful but baseless’), and even given them names. The gifts were gold (which Matthew has in more than half its New Testament occurrences, 5 out of 9), frankincense (‘a white resinous gum, obtained from several kinds of a certain tree in Arabia, used both medicinally and for cult purposes’, Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and aug. by William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker from the 5th edn. (BAGD)), and myrrh (‘the resinous gum of the bush ‘balsamodendron myrrha,’” BAGD). Clearly all three were valuable, and together they formed a munificent gift, suitable for offering to a king. Christians have often seen symbolical meanings in them, gold for royalty, frankincense for deity, and myrrh pointing to suffering and death, but Matthew says nothing about this.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 41.)
Our English word, epiphany, comes from the Greek word phainein meaning “to show” or “to appear”. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the “showing” or the “appearing” of the Incarnation to the world, symbolized in the three “wise men”.
The Feast of the Epiphany reminds us of an important truth. The “showing” or the “appearing” implies gift rather than achievement. What prompted the wise men to recognize Mary and Joseph’s child as “the new-born king” was not something of their making. They came with searching minds and hearts and they saw what was “showing” or “appearing” right there before them. In principle, anyone could have seen it. One of the ironies in this story is that those who should have been able to see it – the religious authorities – would not or could not see it.
What is “showing” or “appearing”? John’s Gospel puts it concisely: “God so loved the world he gave his only Son” (3:16). What is on offer here is infinite love, goodness, truth, beauty and reconciliation. In other words, all that the human heart longs for is being revealed to us in Jesus who is the Christ, the Incarnate Son of God.
God’s being in the flesh is the pre-eminent Epiphany. But God is “showing” and “appearing” in all manner of ways all the time. We just do not get it.
God’s creation is epiphany. We human beings are epiphanies. Pope Francis picks up this theme in Laudato Si. He cites the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“As Christians we are called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet’.” (#9)
The “showing” and the “appearing” are there in every moment, every person, every event, everything, “in the last speck of dust of our planet”. In celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany we affirm our faith in the Incarnation. We also acknowledge the invitation and the opportunity: Wake up! Pay attention! Look and be transformed by what you see!
“Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and light. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may be only a radiance of Yours. Shine through me, and be so in me, that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus. Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way which You love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example; by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you. Amen.” (Prayer of Cardinal John Henry Newman for the Grace to Radiate Christ)