Solemnity Of The Epiphany Of The Lord
Our four Gospels are an early form of catechesis, instruction for Christians. Some of that instruction was directed to current problems in the Christian Community in which Matthew was active.
The best hypothesis is that the Gospel of Matthew originates in the Christian Community of Antioch in Syria. From Luke’s Acts of Apostles, we know about some of the problems of that community. A major problem was the integration of Christian Jew and Christian Gentile into one unified Christian Church. St. Paul had worked strenuously to achieve that unity as some of his letters testify – especially the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Ephesians. See for example Ephesians 2:14-16, “For Christ is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility (between Jew and Gentile) to an end.”
Such was the desired goal, but had it been achieved by the time Matthew wrote his gospel in the eighties of the first Christian century? The Gospel of Matthew from beginning to end keeps hammering away at the problem of integration. Integrating the two elements that formed the Antioch Christian Congregation is perhaps the major theme of his catechesis which we call a gospel or Good News. All know how Matthew ends his catechesis: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….” We also need to look at the beginning of this gospel. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus – depicting him as Israelite from Israelite, even from royalty, all the way back to King David of 1,000 B.C. A closer look at the genealogy reveals that Matthew was already dipping into the theme of integration in the genealogy. Included among the ancient male ancestors of Jesus, royal and otherwise, Matthew included four female ancestors. It was unusual to include women in a genealogy, but what was more amazing – those four women were all Gentiles (non-Jews). Matthew is teasing the Jewish-Christian conservatives of his congregation by revealing that Jesus himself was not pure Jew, that Jew and Gentile were already integrated in Jesus.
More daring than the inclusion of Gentile women in Jesus’ family tree is the story that begins chapter two – The Visit of the Magi or the Epiphany (Revelation) of Jesus to the Gentiles. The Magi represent the Gentiles. At the time when Matthew was writing and teaching, Gentiles were streaming into the Church to the chagrin of some of the conservative Jewish Christians. If Matthew was teasing them gently in the genealogy, in the story of the Magi he openly proclaims that Gentiles are welcome in the Church even on an equal basis. That was difficult for people who had been raised in the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People, the “We are #1”
ideology. Americans can easily relate to that concept.
Let’s see how Matthew goes about his proclamation of unity in composing his story. The Magi (not kings) come from the East – the locality from which Abraham journeyed westward to get away from his heathen environment and their false gods. Two millennia later they follow him westward. Why Magi? They were the learned men, the scientists, of the mysterious East. Our English words “magic, magician” are related to the word “Magi.” They dabbled in secret things, interpretation of dreams, etc. Among other subjects, they studied the skies, the stars. Matthew was aware of folklore – that whenever a V.I.P. is born, a new star appears in the sky.
Besides that, long before Matthew, St. Paul taught about the Gentiles, that “what can be known of God is clear to them…, clearly understood in the things that have been created.” Nature, (the stars), according to Paul, reveals God. Thus the need for the star that guides the Gentiles to Jerusalem, the seat of the King of the Jews (Herod the Great at that time). Why Jerusalem? Isaiah, 700 B.C., had spoken of many people and nations coming to Jerusalem, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob (Israel), that he may teach us his ways… For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. The Jews are the vehicles of revelation. If anyone wants to learn, they must come to Jerusalem. Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews.”
Matthew incorporates into the story his great knowledge of the Scriptures (our Old Testament). Some of his sources for this story are in our first and second readings. The first reading of this feast is from Isaiah 60:1-6. It speaks of the splendor, the light, the glory of the Lord resting on Jerusalem, of the wealth of nations coming to Jerusalem, of caravans of camels bringing gold and frankincense to Jerusalem. Psalm72, the Responsorial Psalm, speaks of “kings bringing gifts, kings paying homage to the Lord, all nations (Gentiles) serving him.” The second reading, from Ephesians, emphasizes Matthew’s major theme of unity and integration, “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, copartners in the promise….”
The Grand Finale of the story takes place after they have received from Jerusalem the revelation that the new king would be born in Bethlehem. (That revelation comes through a quote from the 700 B.C. prophet Micah.)The star reappeared to guide them. Joyfully they enter the house, offer gifts worthy of a king, and worship him. The house is the house of God of which Isaiah spoke above. Loudly and clearly Matthew proclaims, “The Gentiles belong in our house!” They sought the King of the Jews. They found the King of the Gentiles. A catechesis in the integration of all humanity in the Church! How fortunate that tradition includes among the Magi a man of color!