06Jan 06 January, 2013. Sunday. The Epiphany of the Lord.

Is 60:1-6. Our Saviour-King will draw all the nations into his glory.

Eph 3:2-3, 5-6. Salvation through Christ is for everyone. In his Church, no racial distinction.

Mt 2:1-12. The visit of the Magi fulfils of the Messianic prophecy: outreach to all nations.

Theme: The Wise Men followed a star to discover the birth of God’s Son in Bethlehem. If there is to be Epiphany for us, we must use our heads as well as our hearts in our search for Christ.

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First Reading: Book of Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Second Reading: Epistle to the Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6

Surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Searchers Find Him

“Shine out Jerusalem, for your light has come; the glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the people. The nations come to your light. Everyone in Sheba will come bringing gold and incense.” These sayings of the prophet Isaiah must have been in the mind of St Matthew when he described the coming of the Magi to worship the new-born Saviour of the world in Bethlehem. So too must have been the words, which were recorded by Matthew but uttered by Jesus during his public life, when he praised the Roman centurion, a gentile, a foreigner, for his great faith, “I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from the east and the west to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of heaven, but the subjects of the kingdom (meaning the Jews) will be turned out in the dark” (8:10+).)

Roughly twenty-five years after his death on Calvary, this acceptance of Christ by the gentiles was described in his gospel by Matthew, in his beautiful story of the Wise Men from the east being drawn to Bethlehem by a star that shone especially bright in the darkness of the night sky, resulting in the epiphany or revelation to them of God in the person of the infant Jesus. The Apostles when trying to understand the events of Christ’s life had been taught by Christ himself to look for their meaning in certain passages of the OT, and so it is more than likely that Matthew linked the star of Bethlehem, shining serenely in the sky while night covered the earth and darkness the peoples, with a prophecy in the Book of Numbers, which promised, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (24:17).

Originally, this was seen as a reference to the founding of the royal house of David from which the Messiah would come. But Matthew went on to link the star with Bethlehem, which was the city of David, and moreover the town foretold by another prophet (Micah) as being the place chosen by God where the promised Messiah would be born. Since the royal line of David had long since vanished, the Messiah would not be a political leader but rather a spiritual one, and his coming, to a large extent, would be ignored by his own people.

It was mainly the gentiles, represented by the Wise Men, who were to be drawn to this Star of Bethlehem, and came to believe in God’s greatest self-revelation, through the person of Jesus Christ. We are told nothing of what the Magi said, but the gospel, in a concrete way, describes the sublime act of their perfect faith in him, whom they sought, “Falling to their knees they paid him homage.” Then they offered him gifts, gold as befitting a royal person, frankincense reserved for the worship of God, and myrrh, a substance used in dressing wounds and embalming bodies, signifying that this child was truly man, capable of suffering, and destined one day to die.

You may perhaps say that we have no gold, or frankincense, or myrrh. That is true, but we have something more valuable, precious treasures that we can present to Christ, our Saviour and our King. We bring gold to Christ when we try and make him king of our hearts. We offer frankincense when by our worship and prayer we proclaim his divinity. And we can, in some small way, alleviate the pain of the wounds he suffered for us by applying the myrrh of our own sufferings, our sorrow, our humiliations and tears.

The departure of the Magi from their own country is symbolic of every response of faith. When we make an act of faith, we abandon something, the kind of outlook which urges us to rely only on the tangible material world, and we allow ourselves to be drawn, as were the Magi, by someone who, although invisible, is more real than the world of sense around us. But we must always remember that we could never begin to seek God, draw nearer to God, unless God had already found us. The desire for God, the secret thirst for salvation that arises within us, is not begotten of any human emotion, but rather kindled by God himself.

When we are baptised in this faith we become the enlightened; we carry within us the light of faith; we are marked with the sign of God; we become Magi to others in our turn. As Pope St Leo the Great once said, “Whoever preserves in himself, or herself, the brightness of a holy life, becomes for many a star which lights the way to the Lord.”

Contrasting responses to Him

We know from experience that different people can respond in different ways to the same thing, to the same event. People have different reactions to the Spire of Dublin. Some consider it to be a wonderfully modern symbol of Dublin at the beginning of the 21st century. Others regard it as a monstrosity and a scandalous waste of money. The gospel reading puts before us two contrasting responses to the news that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had just been born. Astrologers from the East were so excited by this news that they set out on a long journey to find the child so as to pay him homage. King Herod in Jerusalem was so perturbed by the same news that he sought to kill the child.

Today on this feast of the Epiphany we are asked to identify with the response of the astrologers, the wise men, from the East. They were people who were very observant of nature, God’s natural world, in particular that dimension of God’s natural world that came into view when darkness descended. They observed and studied the stars. Yet, they were not so fascinated by the stars that they worshipped the stars. They recognized that the stars, for all their splendour, pointed beyond themselves to some more wonderful reality, to God. So, when they heard that God was visiting our world in a new way through a child who had just been born, they set out in search of that child. These figures from the East show us how being attentive to God’s natural world can draw us closer to God. The redness of a rose spoke to Joseph Mary Plunket of the redeeming death of Christ; and God can speak to us in a variety of ways through the world of nature. The wise men teach us to be attentive and observant of that world, so that in and through it we may experience the presence of the living God.

Star Of Bethlehem

Most people agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But dating it is quite another matter. Historians have never been able to agree on the year Jesus was born. There is even less certainty about the day or the month. Oddly enough, almost the only scientific data they have to help them in their search is today’s star. Astronomers can, with reasonable accuracy, date the appearance of this star. Inter-stellar activity follows its own fixed rhythms and so the appearance of new stars in different regions can be determined by computation. Fact is stranger than fiction. That part of the Infancy Narrative one would be most tempted to discard as fairy-tale, turns out to be the only thing that is scientifically verifiable. Whatever else has changed since Christ was born, the sky at night remains the same. Star-gazers today can follow the same Star the Wise Men followed.

Western tradition chose three as the number of the Wise Men and even found exotic names for them, Caspar, Melchior and Baithasar. Some suggest that they travelled from Persia or South Arabia, though Matthew simply indicates that they came from the East. The gospel leaves no doubt that they were individuals of strong conviction, enquiring minds and adventuresome spirit. In a word, intellectuals.

The point should not be overlooked. The church has not often shown such welcome to that beleaguered community as its infant-founder. In those rare periods when it did, religion truly blossomed. Oddly enough, the improvement of conditions in the communist east traces its origin to an alliance between the churches and the dissidents. They make natural bedfellows though it often takes persecution to convince them. It was intellectuals who first discovered the star of Bethlehem. No church, no religion can be authentic, that does not cherish specially its poets, its writers and its thinkers. The true church in the world is an island of saints and scholars. Stars reveal their secrets only to dreamers.

Their astronomical enquiries brought the Wise Men as far as Jerusalem. Astronomy could take them no further. There, they had to consult other experts. The Jews were the people of the Book. Only biblical scholars could shed further light on where the Messiah was to be born. So the chief priests and the scribes were called in, through the intervention of Herod. They had not long to wait for an answer. The Bible quickly yielded up its awesome secret. “And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the Leaders of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.” Their search had narrowed down to Bethlehem. Enquiries at the inn might well have led them to the manger. The star, the symbol of their inquiring minds, went forward and halted over the place where the child was. Or did they hear a baby crying?

The investigation of the Wise Men is a fine illustration of the Latin adage intelligentia quaerens fidem (intelligence seeking faith). The message for us is simple. If ever there is to be an epiphany in our lives we will need our heads as well as our hearts. We can ill-afford to ignore the insights of intellectuals.