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Reflections for the Feast of the Epiphany

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany.

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

Introduction: The Greek word Epiphany (επιφάνεια), which means appearance or manifestation or showing forth, is used to describe   Jesus’ first appearance to the Gentiles.  Originally, the word Epiphany referred to the visit of a king to the people of his provinces. In the context of Christianity, "Epiphany" refers to God’s Self-revelation as well as to the revelation of Jesus as His Son. The Feast of the Epiphany, having originated in the East in the late second century, is an older celebration than the feast of Christmas.  In Italy and Spain, the gifts traditionally associated with the Christmas season are exchanged today, on the feast of the Epiphany. Among Italians, it is believed that the gifts are brought by the old woman, Befana (from Epiphany), whereas Spanish custom attributes the gifts to the Kings or Magi. The feast commemorates the coming of the Magi as the occasion for the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the Western Church.  In the Eastern Church, the feast also commemorates   the baptism of Christ. The angels revealed Jesus to the shepherds, and the star revealed him to the Magi, who had already received hints of Him from Jewish Scriptures. Some thirty years later, God the Father revealed   Jesus' identity to Israel at his baptism in the Jordan.  In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus revealed himself as the promised Messiah.   Finally, Jesus revealed himself as a miracle worker at the wedding of Cana, revealing his Divinity. These multiple revelations are all suggested by the Feast of the Epiphany.     

Homily starter anecdote # 1: “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. Half a billion people all around the world watched with suspense and thrill when three astronauts in Apollo 8 landed first time on the moon on July 20th, 1969.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. The same elements of suspense and discovery were there when Marco Polo journeyed to India and China, when Christopher Columbus travelled to America, and when Admiral Byrd went to the South Pole. 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 adventurous spirit of the magi so that we may discover the "epiphany" of our God in everyone and every event, everywhere. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Scripture readings 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. “Jerusalem,” the prophet Isaiah cries out, “your light has come in the midst of darkness and thick clouds covering the earth; the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” For the people of Israel, then in exile in a foreign land, Isaiah was promising redemption, renewal and restoration –- a new life, to be lived in their own land. And the promise goes beyond the Jewish people to include all peoples. For the prophecy continues, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Thus, in this passage, the prophecy which the Lord God gives His people celebrates the Divine Light that will emanate from Jerusalem, and  it pictures 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. Everyone will be drawn to Jerusalem because the radiance of God’s favor rests on her. This prophecy of Isaiah is realized in Jesus Christ, God’s Anointed One (Christ;  Messiah),  Savior of the world, and in his Church, the New Jerusalem made up of Jews and Gentiles. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 72), declares that all the kings of the earth will serve and pay homage to the God of Israel and His Messiah. In Christ, God is calling together the one human race to acknowledge and serve Him in holiness. 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, in today’s second reading, reveals God’s “secret plan,” that the Gentiles also have a part with the Jews in Divine blessings. Affirming the mystery of God’s plan of salvation in Christ, Paul explains that the plan of God includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus implements 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. These pagan Magi were acceptable to God because they feared God and did what was right.  Since the Magi came with humble  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 first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel together with Luke, Chapters 1 and 2, come under the heading “infancy narratives.” They have been described by Raymond E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, Image Books, New York: 1979) as a “Gospel in miniature,” in which the evangelist has set forth the basic tenets of the good news, namely, (1) the universal scope of salvation; (2) an affirmation of Jesus’ Divine origins and Messianic mission (3) the implications of God’s plan and of Jesus’ mission for the Church, i.e. a missiology of world-wide proportions.

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. Tradition holds each of them came from a different culture: Melchior was Asian, Balthazar was Persian and Caspar was Ethiopian - thus representing the three races known to the ancient world. “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). Christian life, the life of God's people, is most often represented in the Bible and in literature, as a journey – a journey that begins with our confession of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior in Baptism and ends when we at last meet Him as the Triune, face to face, in God's heavenly kingdom.

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). The star which shone over the area and served as a beacon for the astrologers can be explained scientifically. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a German astrologer and mathematician calculated that the planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred ca 7-6 B.C.E. could have produced such an illumination in the sky over Bethlehem.  However, the star, as featured in Matthew’s narrative figures more importantly because of its theological significance. No doubt, Matthew, with his mission to demonstrate that Jesus was the Promised one and the fulfillment of all Jewish hopes and prophecies, intended his readers to recall the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24). Therein, Balaam, a pagan seer from the East was co-opted by Balak, king of Moab to curse the Israelites. Prevented by Yahweh from uttering the curse,  Balaam blessed Israel and prophesied, “a star shall rise from Jacob and a scepter shall arise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Matthew portrayed the astral herald that proclaimed the appearance of Jesus and beckoned the Gentiles to salvation as the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophesy.(Sanchez Files).

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, 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. Their answer 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 would plot 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 innocents, 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 gifts:  This 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.  aLet 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 and every day: (a) Gift of our life by offering it on the altar during the Holy Mass and by offering it to God every morning as soon as we get up, and asking for the strengthening anointing of the Holy Spirit to do good and avoid evil during the course if the day. b) Gift of relationship with God by talking to Him in personal and family prayers and listening to Him by reading the Holy Bible every day. c) Gift of friendship with God by experiencing His presence in everyone we come into contract with and offering each our humble service, and by getting reconciled to God every night asking His pardon and forgiveness for our sins and failures during the day.

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)

03 January 2019, 10:59