THE REVELATION OF GOD’S ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON
(A biblical reflection on THE SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD, Sunday, 8 January 2017)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalms: Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,10-13; Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6
The Scripture Text
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern My people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared, and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1-12 RSV)
“… and going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him” (Matthew 2:11).
Why the omission of Joseph? He is surely not dead, for he will re-appear in the next scene. No doubt Matthew here wishes to focus on the kingship of Jesus. In the Davidic messianic tradition the Queen Mother was intimately associated with the king. The “queen” in Judah was never the king’s bride but his mother. Matthew himself had evoked this role for Mary in the Isaian prophecy in Matthew 1:23. In the Roman catacombs of Priscilla, the earliest painting of Mary (second century) is of this scene.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh were common stock of magicians, but Jewish tradition also saw them as gifts suitable for a king (Psalms 45:8; 72:10, 11, 15; Isaiah 60:6) and that is probably Matthew’s understanding of them here. Because of this, later Christians, helped by reflection of Psalm 72:10, assumed the astrologers themselves were kings. The Church Fathers saw the gold as symbol of royalty, the incense that of divinity, and the myrrh that of the coming passion of Jesus.
- For Matthew there was on the one hand the “established group” who were challenged out of their comfort by the new, foreign element. Today there are baptized Christians who form a church of sorts but one that has little interest in sharing the faith beyond its own comfortable confines. A church or a community that is not interested in evangelization is, in Matthew’s view, no longer the church of Jesus Christ, as we shall see most dramatically in Matthew chapter 28.
- In the interface with persons of other religions, we must respect the ways that they seek God, aware that the intensity of their longing for God may well shame our pusillanimity and smug self-contentedness. On the other hand, to assume the attitude that “everyone will be saved anyhow”, that Christianity has no unique message, that there is no value in the disturbance (mutual disturbance!) which the interaction of religious faiths causes – is to reject the very essence of Gospel – which means Good News to be shared.
- Many Christians in the developed world or in Christian countries will have little opportunity to interact with those of non-Christian origin. But a “gentile” can also be, in our daily experience, any person or group we have consciously or unconsciously written off. Luke’s first adorers of the infant Savior are not astrologers from afar but poor, outcast shepherds from nearby. To be a Christian is to be called to make community with those who are not automatically attractive. It is a call to put love where there is none and in doing so to find it.
- Though the story is often used in support of mission to foreign countries, the scene here is not the sending scene of Matthew, chapter 28. Rather it is the coming of the gentiles on their own – or at least not by human intermediaries – to Christ. The application should rather, therefore, be to the interface of the Christian community with those who knock on its doors. How much warmth of welcome do we give those seeking the Lord in our midst? Or, how well do we welcome newcomers to our Church – or the lapsed who choose one day to “try it again”? The ministry of welcome and support to the catechumen and the seeker is a missionary ministry indeed.
- Finally, the seeking attitude of these foreigners, who have so little external help to guide them and yet respond with wholehearted devotion and undertake a long, persevering journey to find the Lord King, challenges all who are comfortably ensconced at some point of their own spiritual journey and have not moved for years, whether they be in or outside the Christian fold. Walter Buhlmann in The Coming of the Third Church relates how he was non-plussed when a Hindu lady in an Indian train leaned forward and asked him, “Can you tell me how to find God?” Finding God, even for Christians, is not a once-for-all event. It is a daily journey, where there are few resting places and no permanent dwellings.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, on this day, by a guiding star You revealed Your Only-begotten Son to all the peoples of the world. Lead us from the faith by which we know You now to the vision of Your glory, face to face. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Note: Text adapted from Fr. George T. Montague SM, “Companion God – A Cross-Cultural Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989, pages: 23-28.
Jakarta, 7 January 2017
A Christian Pilgrim