Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Saint Matthew 2:1-12
Background: The Epiphany
We are fortunate that the Epiphany falls on a Sunday this year, so that all the churches will look at its themes and beauty. When it falls on a weekday, many move it to the previous or following Sunday. It is an ancient feast, also known as the Feast of the Theophany or as the Day of Lights. The name “epiphany” is translated in Koine Greek as “appearance”, or “manifestation.” Older (classical) meanings were associated with the dawn, or the appearance of a god.
The appearances that are attested to not only include the birth of Jesus, but also the visit of the Magi, all childhood events, the baptism by John the Baptist, and may even include the Miracle at Cana as well. It is known from 361 CE, attested to by Ammianus Marcellinus. Egeria also notes an Epiphany celebration that centered on the birth of Christ both in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem in 385 CE.
Of all the events that are drawn into the Epiphany celebration, the most central was the Baptism of Jesus. With the reforms in the western churches following Vatican II, the day began to have a focus only on the visit of the Magi, and hence the mission of the Church to gentiles. The baptism was moved to its own day, the Octave of the Epiphany.
Traditional to this day are the blessing of waters (in the Orthodox churches) and the blessing of homes in which doorways are marked with K (Caspar) + M (Melchior) + B (Balthasar) + 2013. The KMB may also be read as: Christus mansionem benedicat, “may Christ bless this house.”
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
The theme of the day is struck in two imperatives given us by the Second Isaiah, “Arise”, and “Shine”. These commands implore the reader to remember the majesty of God seen in Tabernacle, Jerusalem, the Solomonic Temple, and for Christian readers, the Messianic Jerusalem. One commentator saw these verses as the image of a young woman (representing Judah climbing the heights of Zion and made resplendent in the majesty of the rising sun. It is to this theophany (God resplendent within Jerusalem) that draws many nations to the light of this appearance. Genesis 25:1-4 speaks of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents and their names are repeated here. The prophet’s tone is not one of defining genealogical boundaries, but rather setting a new theological tone of inclusion.
A personal note: my daughter Anna was baptized on this day some years ago, and it did not go without notice to many there that the phrase, “and your daughters shall be carried on the hips of their nurses” was most appropriate.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What do you feel like when you get up in the morning?
2. Do Isaiah’s imperatives of “arise”, and “shine” seem impossible or possible?
3. When does your faith shine within you?
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 Deus, judicium
Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;
That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.
The dedication of this psalm “for Solomon” gives us the notion of a great prayer delivered by David for his heir Solomon. It is a panegyric to the King who follows in the succession of David and the following verses count off the blessings that accrue to those who follow him. The final verses in the psalm continue the recital of blessings and wishes. To the original hearer, this psalm represented prayers for an actual king – someone to whom a reader owed allegiance, and for whom their prayers were chanted in the words of this psalm. Used on this day in the Christian Lectionary, there is another epiphany that appears, a vision of the messianic king seen in Jesus.
Breaking open Psalm 72
1. How are national leaders representatives of God?
2. How do you pray for them?
3. How do they rate over against the hopes stated in the psalm?
Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-- for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
Paul takes a personal situation, and elevates it to an honorific – a prisoner for Christ Jesus. He punctuates his faithfulness as a witness by noting the consequences of such a role – the witness to Jesus Christ. He also notes that he is a herald of the message – and beyond that (perhaps in the guise of Daniel or of Joseph the husband of Mary) as one who can see the mystery of Christ. Paul unravels it for his readers and for us. He makes clear who the audience is, and names the Gentiles as the recipients of the revelation given to him and through him to them as well.
His role, however, does not place him over the reader but rather renders Paul as a “servant”. His duty was to share this revelation to all who would hear him. In a parallel structure (Paul reorders those drawn to the Gospel by revealing to them the righteousness and justice that Jesus brings) in seeing God the creator as the one who in an ancient plan that sent Jesus as a Savior to all. Thus the creator “reorders” the people chosen to be God’s own.
Breaking open Galatians:
1. How have you been a servant of Christ?
2. What does it mean to be a witness?
3. How do you unravel the meaning of Christ to others?
Holy Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
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.
We are placed in time during the rule of Herod the Great (37-4 BCE). Matthew is clear. He is not talking about a dream, although he soon will, but rather about the reality of Jesus. The theme of Jesus revelation is drawn quickly with the mention of the “Magi”. It is an interesting term. Originally it defined a priestly caste in Persia (a country that influenced late Judaism immensely, and whose influence is felt in Christianity as well). The term later loosened into a name for those who were skilled in astrology and the occult (hence the star.) Still resonant today is the notion that each person is represented by a particular star – and thus these wise ones are able to recognize “his star.” If interested, refer to Numbers 24:17, where the connection to David is also visible. Thus the Magi seek one who has been named before – a “king” of David’s line. This heritage is underscored by naming the place of birth: Bethlehem, and the quotation from Micah 5:1-3 which is even more specific in its reference. It is this kingship that sets Herod on edge, and sets up a momentum for the following stories of Egypt and the Innocents.
The Magi bring gifts (see Psalm 72:10). Like Luke, who has Jesus born into a setting of lowliness and poverty, Matthew also sets a thematic stage dominated by the Gentiles – the object of ministry and revelation. It is the Magi who are challenged by the star and the promises. The “chief priests and scribes” seem oblivious.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Why would Matthew be so keen on lifting up the Gentiles? What might have been happening in the time when he wrote this Gospel?
- What do the Magi represent to you?
- What does Herod represent to you?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller