The Epiphany of the Lord (7 January 2018)
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)
This text is unique to Matthew. Attempts have been made to conflate the accounts of Luke and Matthew. This has tended to give impetus to the practice of reading Matthew 2 as a series of separate stories. In fact there is a unity there that is probably derived from the story of Moses. Daniel J Harrington writes: In Christian piety the individual stories in Matthew 2 have been mixed with the corresponding material in Luke 2 into the “Christmas story”—an often uncritical harmonization of the biblical accounts blended with popular imagination. The result has been even greater impetus to read the episodes in Matthew 2 as separate and self-contained units. Yet when we look about for the Jewish background of the four (or five) incidents in Matthew 2, we can recapture their literary and theological unity. That unity is supplied by the birth and childhood of Moses—in both the biblical narrative in the Book of Exodus and the later elaborations of that narrative. The Moses-Jesus typology underlying Matthew 2 enables us to find the unity among the various episodes.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 46.)
The historicity of this story is “a complicated matter” (Ibid). There are however some historically verifiable facts in the text: Herod the Great and the type of person he was, Jewish interest in astrology at the time and Egypt as a place of refuge for Jews. Daniel J Harrington notes however: “Against the historicity of these episodes stand the facts that they are not paralleled in Luke’s infancy narrative nor are they mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Moreover, these spectacular events—the star guiding the Magi to the birthplace of the Jewish Messiah, the slaughter of many innocent children in Bethlehem and its environs—are not corroborated by extra-biblical sources. The device of dream vision and angelic appearance is not the stuff on which scientific historiography relies. The historicity of these episodes remains an open question that probably can never be definitively decided. The more important issue is determining what these stories meant to Matthew and his community” (Op cit, 47).
King Herod: Scholars tell us that this is Herod the Great. “(He) was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman senate in 40 B.C. and gained control of Jerusalem in 37 B.C. He died in 4 B.C., and his kingdom was divided among his surviving sons. Herod the Great was a masterful politician who succeeded in playing off Roman and Jewish factions against each other. He was especially famous for his massive building projects at Caesarea Maritima, Samaria, and the Jerusalem temple. He also had many fortresses constructed, the most famous being Masada. His domestic problems and well-known cruelty to members of his own family provide the background to the incident described in Matt 2:1–12”. (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 41-42).
Bethlehem of Judea: The ancestral home of David. “Bethlehem of Judea is five miles south of Jerusalem; it is distinguished here from Bethlehem of Galilee, seven miles northwest of Nazareth.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 41)
wise men from the East: The Greek word magoi may also be translated “magician”. In English translations of the Bible it is often rendered as Magi. The word was originally used of a caste of Persian priests who had the ability to interpret dreams. Daniel Harrington writes: “The term “Magi” suggests Persia, their practice of astrology indicates Babylon, and the gifts they bring point to Arabia or the Syrian Desert.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 42) There is no mention of them being three in number. The tradition that there were three wise men came from the reference to three gifts – “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh”.
king of the Jews: “Since this was the official title of Herod the Great, the Magi’s question would have been interpreted as referring to a rival of Herod. The title was used by Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.) and his successors as priest-king. Since the Idumean Herod’s Judaism was suspect in some quarters (for the Idumeans had been forcibly converted to Judaism under John Hyrcanus [134–104 B.C.]), any rival claimant to the title would pose a danger to Herod. This was the title, of course, that was attached to the cross as the charge on which Jesus was crucified (see Matt 27:11, 29, 37).” (Ibid)
star at its rising: There has been much conjecture about this expression. Does it refer to an astrological event? Maybe it refers to Numbers 24:17: “a star shall come out of Jacob”.
the Messiah: The Greek word is Christos. “The worship of the Christ was important to Matthew, and he refers to this worship 10 times (2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17).” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 37.)
it has been written by the prophet etc: The words seem to be a combination of Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2.
the house: “Matthew seems to assume that Mary and Joseph live in a house at Bethlehem. He will go on to explain how they got from Bethlehem to Nazareth. On the contrary, Luke 2:1–7 explains how they first got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Despite popular tradition it is not necessary to read Luke 2:7 as referring to a cave or a stable. It is more likely a reference to the part of a private house set apart for animals that could be used also as guest quarters in an emergency situation. So there is no need to see a direct contradiction between Matthew and Luke on this point. Both may well have envisioned Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a house.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 43.)
There is a saying attributed to St Augustine: “Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur”. It may be translated as, “No one is known except through friendship”. In today’s Gospel – Matthew 2:1-12 – we have an example of this. Herod, who is an anxious man, feels threatened when he hears of the birth of the Messiah. Before he knows anything about Jesus he is hostile towards him. With this entirely unfriendly attitude he is never going to know Jesus.
By way of contrast, “the wise men” have a very different attitude. It seems that Herod recognizes this and there is more than a little irony – and deceit – in his words to them: “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.” They were already committed to “search diligently for the child”. They are positively eager to encounter this “child”. The show their “friendship” – indeed deep reverence: “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”. Their attitude disposed them to see and comprehend what Herod would never be able to see and comprehend.
The English word Epiphany comes from the Greek verb phano meaning “shine”, “appear” or “be seen”. The moment was Epiphany for the “wise men” – gentiles. Herod, “King of the Jews”, had no such Epiphany.
Friendship with Jesus disposes us to know him. The more we know him the more the friendship will grow and the more we will recognize him and see him in our days. He will “shine”, “appear” and “be seen” everywhere. Life will increasingly become Epiphany.
The more life – people, events and things – is Epiphany for me, the more chance there is that I will be Epiphany for them. God’s presence in me will “shine”, “appear” and “be seen”. That said, we cannot forget Herod. Not even Jesus could be an Epiphany for that man. The old proverb comes to mind: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. The fact that God dwells in you does not mean that others will recognize that. And vice versa – you may not see that God dwells in them either. In fact, it does not even mean that you will recognize it in yourself.
And so we come full circle, to the importance of friendship – with Jesus, with yourself, with other people and with the world at large. Do as Herod advised: “search diligently for the child”. Approach your life in friendship – the hours in your days, your various experiences, people, events and things – expect Epiphany, allow yourself to be surprised!