The readings for Sunday, January 3, 2016, The Epiphany of the Lord, Cycle A, B, C, are
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 56; and Matthew 2:1-12.
The English word “Epiphany” is derived from a Greek noun meaning “manifestation, appearance, revelation.” The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the Lord Jesus’ revelation or appearance to the Gentiles, the nations — all of them. Matthew used the first chapter of his Gospel to proclaim the revelation of Jesus to his own people, the Jews. The whole second chapter is taken up with the revelation to the Gentiles. Matthew does this in two stories — the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt. In the first story the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, come to visit Jesus. In the second story Jesus visits the Gentiles represented by the Egyptians. As the ancient Egyptians under the patronage of the Patriarch Joseph sheltered the messianic family, so the Egyptians of Jesus’ time sheltered the messianic family under the patronage of another Joseph.
In Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, the first two chapters of his Gospel, little is said of Mary. The central character other than Jesus is St. Joseph. Not only is Matthew’s genealogy the genealogy of Joseph, (so is Luke’s version the genealogy of Joseph). Even the annunciation in Matthew is made to Joseph, not to Mary. Strange to say, Joseph is completely absent from Matthew’s Epiphany story, but is again the central actor for the flight into Egypt and return to the Holy Land. In constructing the Epiphany story Matthew resorts to a form of Jewish literature known as Midrash. The term is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning to meditate on, search, seek deeper meaning, interpret, expand. This form of literature seizes upon Old Testament passages and expands them into new meanings. History is not the primary interest, but rather instruction. In the Infancy Narrative of Matthew, the character of St. Joseph, his dreams, and his protection of the family of the Messiah were influenced by the story of the Patriarch Joseph, his dreams, and his protection of the family from which the Messiah came.
Matthew’s inclusion of the Magi found at least part of its source in the Magus (the singular form of Magi) who came from the East to engage the Israelites. The story is in Numbers 22-24 and has its light moments. The fact that Balaam was accompanied by two servants may have something to do with the traditional number of three Magi, but the number of Magi generally accepted by tradition may be based more on the three royal gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew found the star in the same story. In Numbers 24:17, Balaam speaks a prophetic oracle which originally was to justify and legitimize the kingship of David over the Israelites. Through midrashic or expanded interpretation this oracle evolved into a “prediction of the Messiah. The oracle of Balaam: “I see him, but not now. I behold him, but not nigh. A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel.”
Tradition speaks of the Magi as kings, even though Matthew said nothing in the story about kings other than Herod the Great and the “newly born King of the Jews.” A clear case of evolution through Christian midrashic expansion. For example, Isaiah 60:3, “Nations (the Gentiles) shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
An important point of revelation in the story is the centrality of Jerusalem, the Jewish Scriptures and the Scripture scholars. If the Gentiles want more specific revelation than that given to all peoples through creation, the font of that revelation was confided only to the Israelites, the Jews. As Jesus says to the woman of Samaria in John 4:22, “Salvation is from the Jews.” This statement is based on Isaiah 2:3, “Out of Zion (the hill on which the temple was built in Jerusalem) shall go forth the Torah (revelation), and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Therefore the Gentiles (the Magi) must come to Jerusalem, must consult the Scriptures through the learned scribes, and follow their advice, to find the newborn King of the Jews.
At the time when Matthew was composing his Gospel and long before that time, there was an ongoing debate about whether or not the Gentiles could be accepted into the house of God. The story of the Magi is Matthew’s final answer to that question. His answer is an implied but resounding “YES.” All nationalities are welcome and equal in the Christian Community, in the Church. Matthew has given us a strong statement against racial prejudice.