Sunday Sermon for January 6, 2019, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, Year C
Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-8; Mt 2:1-12
In the first reading the Prophet Isaiah speaks about events that would take place in Jerusalem. Being written after the exile, the original context may have been understood to mean that the people had learned their lesson during their time of exile and were serving the Lord so faithfully that not only would the Jews of the diaspora return to Jerusalem, but their fidelity would be a light that broke through the darkness of the Gentiles to bring them to the truth.
If only it would have worked that way! Unfortunately, we know that many of the Jews did not remain faithful to the Lord. Many gave lip service, but few they were who remained fervent in their love for God. For this reason the passage has to be understood differently. Another event would take place that would reveal the glory of Israel and attract the Gentiles to Jerusalem.
Today we celebrate that event: it is the star which signified the birth of the Messiah. We have all heard about the Magi, often known as wise men, and the journey they made. The Gospel today recounts the story of their arrival in Jerusalem and the reactions of Herod, the Chief Priests, and the people. None of these reactions was good. Herod wanted to kill the Child, the Chief Priests knew where the Messiah was to be born, but obviously did not believe, and the people were greatly troubled.
This is the Messiah the people of Israel had been waiting for, but as God often does, He revealed the glorious coming of our Lord in ways the authorities did not expect. More than likely, neither Herod nor the Chief Priests had heard about the angel appearing to the shepherds. After all, the shepherds probably did not go to Jerusalem to inform the hierarchy of the apparition. Even if they did, the priests would likely have dismissed their report because they were uneducated, lowly people talking about their experience.
Even more shocking, however, is the news that pagans had come to worship the newborn King. To think that the High Priests would hear about the birth of the Messiah from pagans was unthinkable! It made no sense. Why would God reveal to Gentiles the most important thing to happen to the Jewish people since the Exodus? It is interesting that God revealed Himself to Moses at the time of the Exodus. Moses was Hebrew, but he was raised as an Egyptian. Why did God not reveal Himself to a practicing, God fearing Hebrew instead of one who did not know about the Lord?
Now God reveals Himself to pagans through the sighting of a star. Perhaps, like Moses, these men were not what they seemed to be. Why did these men care at all about a king being born in Israel? Palestine was certainly not the cultural or economic capitol of the world. I wonder if they would have gone to Egypt, Assyria, Rome, or Athens when a royal baby was born. I doubt it. But they came to Jerusalem. It makes one wonder if they were from Jewish families who did not return to Israel after the exile.
While it is true that the star appeared in the constellation associated with Israel, one wonders if the Magi had knowledge of the ancient prophecy by another pagan, Balaam, described in Numbers 24, about a star rising out of Jacob which is connected with a king and the Messiah. The effort they made to get to Jerusalem was extreme, but Matthew tells us they came to worship the Baby. It was not just about bringing gifts to a king, it was about giving worship to God.
Many Old Testament prophecies foretold that the Gentiles would be united with the Jews in worshiping God. This was understood to mean the Gentiles would become Jewish. No one, however, would have guessed this would be accomplished in the manner God chose. Even St. Paul tells us this was a mystery hidden from people in previous generations but now revealed to the Apostles and Prophets through the Holy Spirit. Educated as a Pharisee, St. Paul never expected the Gentiles to be “coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Praise God that He works in ways we would never expect! In one way or another, and often in mysterious and unexpected ways, God manifests Himself to each one of us. While our faith is not in extraordinary phenomena, God often uses the unexpected to get our attention. After worshiping the Child, the Magi returned to their country as changed men. God’s Epiphany to us must change us so we will seek Him diligently and offer Him the treasures of our heart, worshiping Him as our King and Lord.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.