The Epiphany of Our Lord, 6 January 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 1-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
St. Matthew 2:1-12

Background: The Epiphany of Our Lord

The establishment of this date, the 6th of January, is related to the ancient Christian practice of tying significant dates to one another.  In calculating the date of Jesus’ Passion as the 6th of April, another calculation revealed the date of his incarnation, 6 January, nine months following the Passion date.  The events that have been associated with this feast have been his Theophany, or Epiphany (Manifestation), along with Jesus’ Baptism, and the first miracle at the Wedding of Cana.  All were seen as signs and manifestations of Jesus’ divinity.   Thus it is so in the East that the Epiphany came to be associated with the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana.  In the West, the observance of 25 December was both a celebration of the Birth of Jesus, and the Visit of the Magi.

In the fifth century, the relics of the Magi were transferred from Constantinople to the west.  It may be that this is what made the emphasis of Epiphany a remembrance of the Magi.  Other traditions are associated with this day.  The blessing of dwellings may be observed around this date.  It is also a date when the principal feast dates (Septuagesima, Ash Wednesday, Easter Day, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the First Sunday of Advent) were announced to the people. With the degradation of Christmass into a largely secular celebration, the Epiphany can serve as a date on which Christians can celebrate the incarnation without all of the commercialism and secular emphasis on 25 December.

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 60th chapter of Isaiah is a thing unto itself and enjoys a unity of purpose.  The following chapter, 61, begins a new emphasis and theme.  In the verses of this chapter we can have a glimpse of Israelite worship following the Exile.  What draws the readers’ attention is the epiphany of the God of Israel, a scene of light and glory that pierces the darkness that covers the earth.  That may be the condition, the darkness, but the promise of the prophet is that God will arise and that God’s glory will “appear over you.” 

What begins next is an Exile in reverse, for “the nations shall come to your light.”  This is not so much vindication for the people of Israel who have been freed from their exile, as it is an indication of the prophet’s universalistic bent.  The glory and light are ubiquitous, and thus those who see and respond are representative of a world that is suddenly aware of the God who frees people.  This is a reversal of the ancient prophets’ message, where God threatened to remove grace from a forgetful nation’s life.  Here God is prodigal in granting his grace to a wide array of people. 

Perhaps what needs to be noted here is that this also represents the prophet’s hope – that the glory of God would attract more and more to return to the holiness of Jerusalem.  So his vision is of an unrelenting stream of people of every kind of stripe, coming in a torrent into the place of God’s rule. 

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     How do you experience God’s glory?
2.     What is the glory of our nation?
3.     Do the two equate?  What are the differences?

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.

If one of the latter Isaiah’s has furnished us with a vision of God’s glory in the First Reading, then the psalmist in Psalm 72 gives us a glimpse of the splendor of Solomon’s court.  The attribution at the beginning of the psalm is simply, “For Solomon.”  Some see in the exaggeration of these verses a messianic nature of the psalm.  More likely is that it represents the common flatteries that a royal court expected from its poets.  Nonetheless, we see a model of the ideal king, the epiphany of a king who is blessed by God.  The themes of justice, peace, rescue, and protection form a backbone for this kingship.  In reading the first sections of the verses (1-7) we are tempted to think that the descriptions are related to God, but they are not.  The “he” in these verses is the king and his rule.

Two verses are elided from the totality of the poem, verses 8 and 9.  They are:

“And may he hold sway from sea to sea, (from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea) 
      from the River (the Euphrates) to the ends of the earth.
Before him may the desert-folk kneel,
     And his enemies lick the dust.”

(Apparently the imperialism of an ancient kingdom has no place in the Liturgy of the Word.  On one occasion at Kibbutz Lavi in Northern Israel, a member of the Kibbutz used these verses to illustrate the God-given nature of Israel’s rights in Palestine.  Such an attitude has given me pause ever since she quoted them in support of her political position.)

The last verses reflect much of the same intention, as does Isaiah, above.  One can picture the “Parade of Tribute” that has been depicted so often in Egyptian carvings.  Here, however, for our use, such tribute is expected from the world as it is laid at the feet of the Christ child.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
  1. How are our rulers like God?
  2. How are they not?
  3. How should they be?

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.

There are some assumptions about the Magi that may have influenced the choice of this reading for the Epiphany.  It is not clear that the Magi were Gentiles at all.  If, as some commentators suspect, this tale of the Magi is really more of a parable than a historical tale, then the point is moot.  Regardless, the author of Ephesians has something important to say to us about who is included in the family of God.  The author makes his point that he has been appointed to announce this good news to those not Jewish.  Beyond that, he notes that this is God’s divine plan, “this was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Like the riches in Isaiah and in Psalm 72, this treasure is given not only to those who followed in the train of Abraham and Sarah, but to all who are “fellow heirs.”  If Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in our lives, then as the author of Ephesians points out, such manifestations are also in the lives and hearts of others.  Thanks be to God.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How important is your family history to you?
  2. How do you “belong” to your family?
  3. How do you “belong” to God?

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.

This text has become so conflated with the Lucan Birth Narrative, that it might be good to separate the two.  Indeed one commentator (Albright/Mann) deems it more of a parable than a history.  What then are the elements that Matthew uses? First of all, there is the outsider.  We don’t know from whence the Magi came.  Were they Semitic?  Perhaps they were, or perhaps they came from some other race.  Does the tradition use this story to anticipate the ministry to the Gentiles?  Probably it does not.

 The other element is astrology.  Denounced in most of the Hebrew Scripture, astrology did have a place in inter-testamental Palestine.  There is plenty of archaeological evidence of the use of the zodiac and the influence of the stars, perhaps an on-going influence of Babylonian and Persian origin.  Matthew’s point here is that the birth of the child is a significant event, and its significance expands beyond the usual influence of such a birth.  Here Jesus is discoverable and knowable. Perhaps the Magi offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the tools of astrologers, because having seen the child, they no longer need them. 

Usually when Matthew connects and event, saying, or story to quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase, “that it might be fulfilled” is used to tie the quotation to the event.  In the story of the Magi, there is no such connection.  If these quotations are used as a parabolic device, then the commentator, reader and preacher must search for what it was that Matthew truly intended in preserving this tradition. 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      What do the Magi represent to you?
2.      What gifts might you have brought to the Christ child?
3.      How is this story lived out today?

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 questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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