by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2: 1-12
The substance of the celebration of Epiphany is the revelation that Emmanuel (God-with-us), the Messiah, the Christ of God is alive and present in our world in the love and concern we extend to one another, in the compassion, forgiveness and mercy we give and receive, in the efforts we make to bring justice to life for our sisters and brothers who have been deprived of it. An epiphany is an experience of discovery, awareness and appreciation that God is present and alive in the practical expressions of love, care and concern that we demonstrate and receive. In imitation of the Magi, we are invited to open our eyes, hearts and minds to the extent that we come to recognise the presence of God within, around and among us.
While many of us are familiar with the Christmas carol whose opening stanza is:
We three kings from Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star. John H. Hopkins, 1857,
we might notice that, in his Gospel, Matthew makes no mention of “three kings”. Without embellishment, he records the event of the visitors coming in search of Jesus in the following words: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2: 1-2). Over the years, tradition and fertile imagination have combined to number the visitors as three, ascribe a black skin colour to one of them, and give them the colourful names of Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. These are imaginative additions, not part of Matthew’s writing.
Scripture scholars have alerted us to the fact that Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community made up mostly of Jewish people who had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ or Anointed one of God. The Jewish people had long held the view that their God was the true God who was exclusively theirs. Matthew was committed to convincing those who belonged to his community that the Gospel of Jesus was for all humanity not just for a parochially-minded nation, who repeatedly took pride in referring to themselves as God’s chosen people, singled out by God for special treatment. It is for that reason that Matthew introduced this second chapter of his Gospel with the account of a group of pagan magi, astrologers, religious seekers who depended on signs in the stars and the heavens to guide them in their search for divine truth. By implication, Matthew complimented them for their open and honest searching and informed his own community that Jesus and his Gospel are universal in their application. Modern-day scripture scholars suggest that the Magi of the Gospel account might well have been Zoroastrians, who had travelled from the country we now identify as Iran.
An even closer look at the text of today’s gospel-reading, gives us a picture of the ironies, contradictions and unexpected events that were unfolding in the world into which Jesus was born. Note, for instance, the irony in the fact that, when a seriously disturbed Herod sought an answer to the question asked by the magi (“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”), the Chief Priests and teachers of the Law gave him a clear answer from their prophet Micah yet could not bring themselves to travel to Bethlehem to see what the magi eventually discovered for themselves by following the signs in the stars. They themselves failed to appreciate the very information from Micah which they had shared with a tyrannical, pagan king. Yet the closed mindedness of religious leaders and the evil at work in people like Herod were features of the world in which Jesus was to grow up and subsequently conduct his mission.
Moreover, as Matthew’s story unfolds, we learn how customary expectations are overturned sometimes. Over centuries we have heard repeatedly how visiting foreign dignitaries bring ornate gifts to the monarchs of nations they visit. The Magi, however, by-passed Herod and the Chief Priests and gave their expensive gifts to a poor child born in a broken-down animal shelter. They gave little attention to potentates.
Matthew makes two other points worthy of note. While Herod told the magi what he had heard from the Chief Priests in their account of Micah’s prophetic words, they still pursued the traditional way of searching that belonged to their religion. Their searching was rewarded. This was Matthew’s way of teaching his community that there is not just one right way of searching for God. Secondly, his comment that the magi returned home by a different route is a symbolic way of recording that they returned home deeply changed by their encounter with the infant king of the Jews.
Matthew’s Epiphany story is laden with tension and absurdity. Is it not absurd that a king, whose focus was on power and position, was afraid of a vulnerable, defenceless child? And almost absurd that the citizens of a city whose economy had for centuries been built on religion had become disturbed by news of strange-looking foreigners who had unexpectedly arrived on camels seeking the whereabouts of an infant who, according to them, had been born king of the Jews? Absurd at one level, but to this day our world has witnessed the obliteration of children and the abortion of unborn infants because they were seen as inconvenient or regarded as potential threats to security and power if they were allowed to grow to maturity.
There’s yet another message for those of us wedded to orthodoxy or bent on labelling ourselves as conservative or traditional. There is no one way of searching for God and for truth. Anyone genuinely searching for God is worthy of our admiration and respect, irrespective of her/his religious affiliation, or whether they have no faith at all. Moreover, those of us who are Christians would do well to realise that the Gospels will remain unfinished for as long as we are open to be surprised by them, and until we exhaust the truth and challenge they hold out to us.