By FATHER DONALD DILGER
The Solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord, Years ABC
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6; Response: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
The Gospel of Matthew is our only source for the story of the Epiphany — the revealing of Jesus as King of the Gentiles (all nations) represented by the Magi. It is not generally understood that, by this story, Matthew delivers a profound and divinely inspired rejection of racial prejudice. Without some knowledge of that background, the story of the Epiphany can be little more than a cute history serving as a foundation for a children’s stage plays. For example: a grandmother writes about such a play presented in a Catholic church on the Feast of the Epiphany:
“Three little boys represented the Magi of Matthew’s story. They carried their gifts on little pillows. After they gave the gifts to Jesus, they began hitting each other with the pillows. The child who played Baby Jesus sat up, waved to his mother in the audience, shouting, ‘Hi, Mom!’ There were no sheep in the play, though one little shepherd mingled with the Magi. (Matthew, of course, has neither shepherds nor sheep in his story.) Since this parish church served a large rural area in which there were dairy farms, it was decided to have Holstein cows instead of sheep. Three little boys wore spotted shirts. They got too warm, slipped off their Holstein shirts and began jumping up and down on the stage.” Thus, the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord!
One wonders if this play replaced the required homily on the readings. There was a brief sequel, which may have substituted for the homily. The pastor asked the little shepherd, “Do you want to become a priest?” Boy: “Yes!” Pastor: “Like me?” Boy: “No!” The child then named another priest of his acquaintance, got into the center aisle and said, “Like this!” He folded his hands, and with great solemnity walked toward the altar. Matthew might have smiled but would not be pleased. If he had seen this play, he surely would have sung Melanie’s 1970s song, but with a slight change in words, “What have they done to my song, Lord? What have they done to my song?”
Background to Matthew’s Epiphany gospel
It is generally agreed that Matthew’s gospel was composed between 80 and 85 A.D., in Antioch, Syria. Antioch was the city where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Christianity seems to have first reached Antioch in the 30s during the persecution that broke out in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen the Deacon. Some of the fugitives who were Greek-speaking Jews began proclaiming Jesus to non-Jews — probably Gentiles who had been attending Jewish synagogue services. There were many converts. A problem arose. “How much of Jewish law applied to these Gentile converts?” There was an ongoing struggle and debate over this issue. Eventually James of Jerusalem, called “brother of the Lord,” and Simon Peter and Saul/Paul of Tarsus, plus the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D. were all involved in attempts to settle this central problem. The Christian Jews were burdened by strong anti-Gentile statements in the Old Testament. Examples: Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 23:3-5.
It is an accepted hypothesis that a Christian scribe, whom we call Matthew, was engaged by the Christian community to compose a document of compromise to bring peace between Christian Jew and Christian Gentile. Matthew chose the beginning and the end of his gospel for the greatest effort to bring the two sides together. In his first chapter, in the genealogy of Jesus, though it was really the genealogy of Jesus’ legal father, Joseph, Matthew hints at what is coming in the following chapter in the Epiphany story. How does he do this? In the genealogy, he takes the unusual step of including four Gentile women as ancestresses of Jesus. So even Jesus had Gentile DNA!
In the genealogy, Matthew had established that Jesus was a royal; a descendant of King David, who died 961 B.C. Therefore, Jesus has a right to be called King of the Jews. In chapter two, Matthew goes full throttle to proclaim Jesus King of the Gentiles. He begins, “When Jesus was born … in the days of King Herod” (died 4 B.C.), “Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews?’” Magi were known as scholars, magicians, scribes, astronomers, astrologers, and star-gazers. They noticed a new star. Everyone knew that a new star indicated the birth of an important person. We know they were heathens because they came from the east, the very locality from which God called Abraham to separate him from the heathens. How they figured out that this star pointed out a new King of the Jews is not Matthew’s concern, nor ours. St. Paul wrote, some years earlier in his Letter to the Romans, that the Gentiles could find God through God’s creation; in this case, the star. King Herod is known for his cruelty, jealousy and homicidal elimination of rivals. So, King Herod is worried. Matthew involves Jesus’ later enemies, the chief priests and scribes, in the plot to get rid of this new king. The scholars point to an oracle of the eighth-century B.C. prophet Micah, which singles out Bethlehem as birthplace of this new king.
We need not pursue the plot of Herod and the chief priests here. So, off go the Magi to Bethlehem. Their gifts are gifts fit for a king — gold, frankincense, myrrh. What is myrrh? It was the resin of a tree native to southern Arabia. It was used in sacred anointing oil and for embalming. The great King Solomon (died 922 B.C.) received myrrh as a gift. The climactic moment arrives. These Gentiles enter the house, honor their king with due prostrations, and present their royal treasures. House is the key word. It is the Christian Church, the House of God, the palace of the King. The Gentiles have now recognized Jesus as their king and entered the house of the King of the Gentiles, where they are welcome. That is Matthew’s proclamation. At the end of his gospel, he will return to this proclamation – when the King of Jews and Gentiles appears in glory to his disciples and instructs them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”