by Br Julian McDonald cfc
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judah territory – this was during Herod’s kingship. – a band of magi (scholars) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around: “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signalled his birth. We’re on a pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2, 1-12
As we begin our reflection on the readings for Epiphany, let’s remind ourselves that all stories are true, and that some are based on fact. Matthew’s gospel story of the Magi coming to worship the newborn Jesus is almost certainly a mixture of fact and wide-ranging imagination. What matters most is the message Matthew was intent on conveying.
Approximately 580 years before the Christian era, the writer of the book of Isaiah penned a poem for the benefit of the people of Jerusalem, who had returned home, after several generations in exile, to find their city in ruins. To encourage them, the poet painted a picture of Jerusalem restored to its former glory. That poem, which we hear in today’s first reading, is effectively about an attractive-looking, but really empty past. The poem, which, among other things, makes reference to a resurrected economy restored with help from foreign trading, reads as follows:
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
all people sunk in deep darkness.
But God rises on you,
God’s sunrise glory breaks over you…
And then, streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
pouring in from the south of Sheba,
loaded with gold and frankincense,
preaching the praises of God… (Isaiah 60, 1-6)
While the kind of restoration for which they hoped did not eventuate, the Jewish people continued to long for a Messiah who, they expected, would realise their dreams of status, power, independence and wealth. They became deaf to the message of the prophet Micah, who had foretold that the Messiah would come in humble circumstances, and be born in the insignificant village of Bethlehem.
When Herod got wind of the arrival of travellers from the East, who were searching for a newborn king of the Jews, and who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, he took fright, imagining that his position and comfort would come under threat. So, instead of relying on what he had been told by the newly-arrived travellers from the East, he sought a second opinion from the religion scholars resident in Jerusalem, asking them where the Messiah was to be born. They referred him to the prophecy of Micah: “It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land, no longer bringing up the rear. From you will come a leader who will shepherd my people, Israel. He’ll be no upstart, no pretender…He’ll stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength. And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect – Peacemaker of the world!” (Micah 5, 2-4).
In response to this, Herod redirected the magi to Bethlehem. Despite their astrological calculations, they had arrived nine miles off their targeted destination. Then, He had cunningly tried to use them to do his dirty work of locating the newborn king who, he feared, would bring him down. Matthew, however, recorded that these searchers had heeded a dream, warning them not to return to Herod with news of what they had discovered in Bethlehem.
Matthew would have been familiar with both Isaiah and Micah, and so borrowed heavily from them. Notice, however, that he made no mention of camels or of the number of travelling magi. Countless cultures since then have concluded gratuitously that, because they had brought three gifts, there must have been three of them. In time the story of the magi has been expanded and embellished. Moreover, three names have been invented for them. What then is the point of this story for us, in our time and place?
In an article written about the significance of Epiphany, the renowned, American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann commented: “The narrative of Epiphany is the story of two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing—the true accent of epiphany—that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials… Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 5 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency… The way ahead is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into ploughshares.” (Walter Brueggemann, Off by Nine Miles: Isaiah 60, 1-7; Matthew 2, 1-12 in The Christian Century Magazine, Dec. 2001)
Worthy of note is the impact that our own feelings of insecurity can have on us. They can make us belligerent, defensive and angry. It was his insecurity that fuelled Herod’s fury. In response, Matthew presented his audience with a parody of the king he saw in Herod. He saw a man who simply did not live up to the ancient, masculine virtues attributed to kings – courage, honesty and self-control. Gripped by fear and anger, Herod lashed out. Yet, despite his violence, he failed in his designs. He is a clear indication that even tyrants who act like buffoons can be deadly. Our modern world has seen a succession of buffoon leaders like Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and others in the so-called developed world since them. In contrast, the birth of Jesus ushered in a reign of compassion, mercy and justice.
Epiphany puts the focus on the journey that every one of us is invited to travel. It is a journey that ultimately is a search for God – finding God as central to the meaning of our life; finding God in the ordinariness of family and community, finding God in reaching out to others in need. These are all epiphanies or revelations of God’s presence. As a new year unfolds, may we be alert to the countless epiphanies in which we might discover the love of God among us.