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The Eastern kings adore Jesus The Eastern kings adore Jesus  (2017 Getty Images)

Reflections for the feast of Epiphany

Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi, while the Eastern Churches commemorate the Baptism of Christ, where the Father and the Holy Spirit give combined testimony to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

Is 60:1-6;   Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6;   Mt. 2:1-12

Homily starter anecdote “Because you never know what’s going to happen next!” A survey was made among school children asking the question why they enjoyed reading Harry Potter novels and watching Harry Potter movies. The most common answer was, “Because you never know what’s going to happen next!” The same element of suspense and discovery marked the journey of the Magi, who never knew what road the Spirit was going to take them down next. When pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager made their historic flight in 1986 with their spindly Voyager aircraft, the whole world followed it with excitement. For nine days a sky-watch was kept tracking their first non-stop global flight without refueling. Marco Polo journeying to India and China, Christopher Columbus coming to America, Admiral Byrd going to the South Pole, our Astronauts flying to the moon: such adventurers have always aroused our admiration and curiosity. The magi- astrologers described in today’s Gospel had to be a little crazy leaving the security of their homeland to venture forth into a strange country presided over by a mad king like Herod, in search of a Divine child. But their great Faith, curiosity, and adventurous spirit enabled them to discover the secret of the whole universe – the secret of God’s incredible love for His people – because the Child they found was no ordinary child but the very Son of God become man. Today’s readings invite us to have the curiosity of the school students and the Faith and adventurousness of the magi so that we may discover the "epiphany" of our God in everyone and every event, everywhere. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/wt/client/v2/story/WT_Story.cfm?SecKey=151).

Introduction: The Greek word Epiphany (επιφάνεια), means appearance or manifestation. First, the angels revealed Jesus to the shepherds.  In the Western Church, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, while in the Eastern Church, the feast is the commemoration of   the baptism of Christ where the Father and the Holy Spirit gave combined testimony to Jesus’ identity as Son of God.   Later, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus revealed himself as the promised Messiah, and at Cana he revealed his Divinity by transforming water into wine. These multiple revelations are all suggested by the Feast of the Epiphany. 

Scripture lessons summarized: Today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 60:1-6, is chosen partly because it mentions non-Jews bringing gifts in homage to the God of Israel. Here the Prophet Isaiah, consoling the people in exile, speaks of the restoration of New Jerusalem from which the glory of Yahweh becomes visible even to the pagan nations. Thus, the prophet in this passage celebrates the Divine Light emanating from Jerusalem and foresees all the nations acknowledging and enjoying that Light and walking by it. As a sign of gratitude for the priceless lessons of faith offered by Jerusalem, the nations will bring wealth by land and sea, especially gold for the Temple and frankincense for the sacrifice. Today’s Psalm (Ps 72), declares that all the kings of the earth will pay homage to and serve the God of Israel and His Messiah. Thus, these two readings express hope for a time when “the people of God” will embrace all nations. As a privileged recipient of a Divine “epiphany”, Saint Paul reveals God’s “secret plan,” that the Gentiles also have a part with the Jews in Divine blessings. Hence, in the second reading, St. Paul affirms the mystery of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. Paul explains that the plan of God includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus implemented this Divine plan by extending membership in his Church, making it available to all peoples. Thus, the Jews and the Gentiles have become “coheirs, members of the same Body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Hence, there are no second-class members in the Church among Christian believers. Paul claims that he has been commissioned by Christ to make this mystery known to the world. Today’s Gospel teaches us how Christ enriches those who bring Him their hearts.  Since the Magi came with joy in their hearts to visit the Christ Child, God allowed them to see wondrous things. At the same time, today’s Gospel hints at different reactions to the news of Jesus’ birth, foreshadowing his passion and death, as well as the risen Jesus’ mandate to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).

Gospel exegesis:  The Magi and the star: The Magi were not Kings, but a caste of Persian priests who served Kings by using their skills in interpreting dreams and the movements of the stars. The sixth century Italian tradition that the magi finding Jesus were three, Magi, Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior, is based on the fact that three gifts are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel:  gold, frankincense and myrrh. “Matthew nowhere says that there were three wise men from the East. This assumption has probably been drawn from the fact that three gifts are mentioned, and it could easily be presumed that each of the Magi brought one, although this is going beyond what the text itself says. “They are supposed to have been kings, but this stems from a very literal translation of a psalm verse: ‘The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts’ (Ps 72:10). Ancient depictions of them never involved symbols of royalty, but simply the Phrygian cap and garments of noble Persians” (Dr. M Watson). The Magi may actually have been Persian priests or Babylonian astronomers or Nabataean spice-traders. Eventually, however, they were pictured as representatives of different peoples and races.   The Orthodox Church holds that the Magi consisted of twelve Kings, corresponding in number to the twelve tribes of Israel.  (The term magoi in Greek refers to a wide variety of people, including fortune-tellers, priestly augurs, magicians and astrologers. Because of their connection with the star in this story, it is safe to conclude that Matthew identified them mostly with the last group. Possibly they came from Babylonia, or Persia, where the word magus originated. There were almost certainly Gentiles, for if they had been Jews, they would have known better than to ask King Herod about a national ruler who would challenge his dynasty! It is not clear from the story why they wanted to pay homage to a Jewish king, or what they learned about him from their observations of “his star” (Matthew 2:2) Dr. M Watson. 

The star:  Commentary on the Torah by Jewish rabbis suggested that a star appeared in the sky at the births of Abraham, Isaac and Moses.  Likewise, in the Book of Numbers, the prophet Balaam speaks of "a star that shall come out of Jacob."  Stars were believed to be signs from God, announcing important events.   Thus, the brightness of the Light to which kings were drawn was made visible in the star they followed. (In the last 40 years, a number of scientists and astronomers have pointed to particular clusterings of planets or stars around the time of Jesus’ birth, which would have created an unusual or dramatic heavenly “portent,” suggesting that perhaps Matthew’s account is more historical than some exegetes might choose to believe). “But what does all of this matter? Matthew tells us that all we need to know is that, from the time of his coming into the world, the Lord was manifested to people who came from distant lands. God made the good news of this birth know to them by a suitable sign, which guided their journey. But it was necessary for the chief priests and scribes to supply the Scriptures to the strangers, so that they might reach ‘the house’ where they would find the one for whom they were looking.”  (Days of the Lord, Vol. 1, pp. 259-60)

The gifts:  Gold, frankincense and myrrh may be thought of as prophesying Jesus’ future.  Gold was a gift for Kings; frankincense (an ancient air purifier and perfume), was offered to God in Temple worship (Ex. 30:37);  and myrrh (an oriental remedy for intestinal worms in  infants), was used by the High Priest as an anointing oil (Ex. 30:23), and to prepare bodies for burial.  These gifts were not only expensive but portable.  Perhaps Joseph sold the gifts to finance the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt.   The gifts might have been God’s way of providing for the journey that lay ahead.  

The triple reactions: The Epiphany can be looked on as a symbol for our pilgrimage through life to Christ.   The feast invites us to see ourselves in the Magi – a people on a journey to Christ.     Today’s Gospel also tells us the story of the encounter of the Magi with the evil King Herod.   This encounter demonstrates three reactions to Jesus’ birth:  hatred, indifference, and adoration: a) Hatred: A group of people headed by Herod planned to destroy Jesus.   b) Indifference: Another group, composed of priests and scribes, ignored Jesus.   c) Adoration: The members of a third group -- shepherds and the magi -- adored Jesus and offered themselves to Him.

A) The destructive group:  King Herod considered Jesus a potential threat to his kingship.  Herod the Great was a cruel and selfish king who murdered his mother-in-law, wife, two brothers-in-law and three children on suspicion that they had plotted against him. In today’s Gospel, Herod asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah is to be born. The answer Matthew puts on their lips tells him, and us, much more, combining two strands of Old Testament promise - one revealing the Messiah to be from the line of David (see 2 Samuel 2:5), the other predicting “a ruler of Israel” who will “shepherd his flock” and whose “greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth” (see Micah 5:1-3) (Dr. Hann). Later, the scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus because he had criticized them and tried to reform some of their practices. Today, many oppose Christ and his Church because of their selfish motives, evil ways and unjust lives. Children still have Herods to fear. In the United States alone, one and a half million innocent, unborn children are aborted annually.

B) The group that ignored Christ:  The scribes, the Pharisees, and the Jewish priests knew that there were nearly 500 prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the promised Messiah.  They were able to tell Herod the exact time and place of Jesus’ birth.   They were in the habit of concluding their reading from the prophets on the Sabbath day by saying, “We shall now pray for the speedy arrival of the Messiah.”   Unfortunately, they were more interested in their own selfish gains than in discovering the truth. Hence, they refused to go and see the child Jesus -- even though Bethlehem was quite close to Jerusalem.  Today, many Christians remind us of this group.   They practice their religion from selfish motives, such as to gain political power, prestige and recognition by society.   They ignore Jesus' teachings in their private lives.

C) The group that adored Jesus and offered Him giftsThis group was composed of the shepherds and the Magi.  The shepherds offered the only gifts they had: love, tears of joy, and probably woolen clothes and milk from their sheep.  The Magi, probably Persian astrologers, were following the star that Balaam had predicted would rise along with the ruler’s staff over the house of Jacob (see Numbers 24:17). The Magi offered gold, in recognition of Jesus as the King of the Jews; frankincense, in acknowledgment that He was God, and myrrh as a symbol of His human nature. “Like the Magi, every person has two great ‘books’ which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God Who speaks to us, Who always speaks to us.” (Pope Francis)

Life Messages: (1) Let us make sure that we belong to the third group.  a) Let us worship Jesus at Mass, every day if we can, with the gold of our love, the myrrh of our humility and the frankincense of our adoration.  Let us offer God our very selves, promising Him that we will use His blessings to do good for our fellow men.   b) Let us plot a better path for our lives.  Just as the Magi chose another route to return to their homes, let us choose a better way of life, abstaining from proud and impure thoughts, evil habits and selfish behavior.  c)  Let us become the Star, leading others to Jesus, as the star led the Magi to Him.   We can remove or lessen the darkness of the evil around us by being, if not like stars, at least like candles, radiating Jesus’ love by selfless service, unconditional forgiveness and compassionate care.

(2) Like the Magi, let us offer Jesus our gifts on this feast of Epiphany. (a) The first gift might be friendship with God.  After all, the whole point of Christmas is that God’s Son became one of us to redeem us and call us friends. God wants our friendship in the form of wholehearted love and devotion.  (b)  A second gift might be friendship with others. This kind of friendship can be costly.   The price it exacts is vulnerability and openness to others.   The good news, however, is that, in offering friendship to others, we will receive back many blessings.   (c)  A third gift might be the gift of reconciliation.    This gift repairs damaged relationships.   It requires honesty, humility, understanding, forgiveness and patience.   (d)   The fourth gift of this season is the gift of peace:  seeking God’s peace in our own lives through prayer, the Sacramental life and daily meditation on the Word of God. It is out of humble gratitude that we give Him from the heart our gifts of worship, prayer, singing, possessions, and time. As we give our insignificant, little gifts to God, the good news is that God accepts them! Like the Magi offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we offer what we have, from the heart, in response to what that Child has given to us - Himself. Let us conclude with a 19th century English carol, Christina Rosetti’s A Christmas Carol, which begins, “In the bleak midwinter.” The carol sums up, in its last stanza, the nature of "giving to the Christ Child.”

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I could give a Lamb.

If I were a wise man, I could do my part.

What I can I give Him?  Give Him my heart!” (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

04 January 2018, 17:21