The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 6 January 2012
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
St. Matthew 2:1-12
Background: The Epiphany
Regretfully, we often associate the Epiphany only with the visit of the Magi, or easily associate Christmas Day with the West and Epiphany with the East. In the ancient Church, the Epiphany was a feast that celebrated the manifestation (Epiphany) of Jesus to the world (which celebrated both the birth and baptism of Jesus). When the Christmas festival became normative in the mid fourth century, Epiphany began to move toward a festival that focused its celebration of the baptism of Jesus. With the great Schism in 1054, the development of the festivals commemorating the birth of Christ, go in separate directions. What evolved in the West were the “Twelve Days of Christmas” beginning on the 25th of December and concluding on the Epiphany. With the liturgical revisions following Vatican II, the Sunday following the Epiphany (it’s Octave) is devoted to the Baptism of Jesus. What was once a unitive feast that focused on both birth and baptism became a feast that took special notion of the Kings, and of the manifestation to the Gentiles, serving as a secondary celebration of the Nativity.
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.
Contained in a section of work written by Second Isaiah and entitled “Songs of the First Return” we hear songs of praise and joy about the return to Jerusalem. In the verses that serve for our reading today, we picture Jerusalem in glory. The glory, however, does not radiate from Jerusalem herself, but rather she is asked to stand up in the presence of the rising sun (God) and to reflect the glory that God sheds upon her. Of more interest, especially given one of the emphases of the day, is the mention of the gentiles. Although this has not always been the primary focus of The Epiphany (see Background section) it is implicit in the readings. Here, in this reading, we see the procession of other nations who are attracted the light of God, reflected from a new Jerusalem. In a way, this second Isaiah anticipates the Pauline and Lucan focus on the ministry to the gentiles. Another reference to the popular themes of the day, namely the kings, is the “gold and frankincense” mentioned in the final verse.
Breaking open Numbers:
- How has God shined upon you?
- Where do you see the splendor of God reflected in creation?
- Which of the nations are drawn to God in your way of thinking?
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 claim for this psalm is that it is a psalm of David, written for the “king’s son”, Solomon. Some commentators see this psalm as a “messianic psalm” applying the hopes for Solomon’s reign to the many that will follow him. It is more likely that it is written for Solomon, using all the typical exaggeration common to court poetry. In the imperial language, however, we detect the hopes of a people for an ideal king. The themes of justice, care of the poor, protection, and comfort give the verses a sense of prayer for the new king. There is a geographical dimension to the poem as well. It is unfortunate that the framers of the lectionary have omitted verses, 8 and 9, which further the emotional scope of the piece as the psalm describes the wide spectrum of the king’s suasion. That this psalm is chosen for this day gives us a vision of the manifestation of kingly rule. Jesus is the king who rules over the nations.
Breaking open Psalm 72
- What do you expect of your earthly rulers?
- Which of the attributes that David assigns to Solomon are present in our rulers today?
- How did ancient kings have mercy on the poor? Or did they?
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.
|The Mamertine Prison in Rome|
Paul distinguishes himself in this reading by calling himself a “prisoner”, which he indeed was. Imprisoned in Rome, Paul wears this as a badge that witnesses to all he has borne for the sake of the Gospel. He also speaks of himself in the guise of an interpreter of the mystery. It is the mystery that was made known only in the latter days, and was made known to the gentiles as well. There is one more identification that Paul makes, namely that of a servant – a servant who is fully empowered by God. In a sense, Paul presents himself as being recreated by God so that in his ministry all of the creative power of God in Christ Jesus might be made known. He calls this revelation of God’s will the “eternal purpose”. For all of its majestic tones, the verses really speak to every man or every woman about their role and duty with Paul in being stewards of God’s plan.
Breaking open Ephesians:
- How was Paul a “prisoner of Christ?”
- How are you a “prisoner of Christ?”
- How are you a servant?
St. 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.
Herod had reasons to worry. He was a bit of an interloper in Judean politics. He married into the Hasmonean family, and therefore fretted about his acceptance as king, and his ability to keep the throne for himself. It is in this context then that we can understand his attitudes when it come to the news that comes from the “wise men from the East”. Their talk is about a child who is born “king of the Jews” – dangerous talk. And who are they? They are described as “magi”, educated and wise in the ways of astrology, hence the star, and probably coming from Persia, the source of a great deal of influence in Judaism. We need to be careful about the star, which really may be an oblique reference to Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come out of Jacob” aligning Jesus with the Davidic kingship. This is further emphasized in the advice given to Herod by his own learned ones. The reference to Bethlehem is a clear reference again to David. Thus Jesus is described and honored as the royal king.
The other theme present is that of honor and worship. The visitors of the east (gentiles) perform acts of worship: they see, they kneel, they pay homage, and they offer gifts. Jesus is not only king, but also a person worthy of worship. To fulfill Matthew’s reliance on the Moses story in framing his birth narrative, the wise ones are encouraged to go home via another route, not telling the king (read Pharaoh) what they have found. The story continues with the killing of the innocents, and the escape to Egypt, thus incorporating other Moses motifs into the story.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What do you think that the Magi were seeking?
- Why is Herod so distressed?
- Have you ever “followed a star?”
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.