Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century

God's Word on Sunday: Epiphany lights the way toward salvation

  • January 5, 2019

Epiphany of the Lord, Jan. 6 (Year C) Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Historians, astronomers and Bible scholars have engaged in long and learned debates about the Epiphany story. Did it actually happen? Was there really a star or was it something else? Why is it only reported in Matthew’s Gospel? Why is there no mention of it in any other sources? 

These debates will go on forever and there are no simple answers. It would be more fruitful to focus on the text and the story — what is it trying to reveal to us? What is its message? 

The Epiphany story is a variation on a constant theme in the Old Testament — hope and fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy from Isaiah was given around the time of the return from exile. It was meant to dispel the gloom and discouragement felt by many of the Jews after their return from Babylon. 

Their land and the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins and all their efforts to rebuild had made but scant progress. The way of life they left behind generations before was a dim memory. They wondered if Judea would ever recover its status as a vibrant and God-centred nation. 

The litany of hopeful words from Isaiah can be summed up in one word: light. The darkness was being swept aside, the light of God was shining upon them and the glory of the Lord was over them. 

It was to be a time of ecstatic joy, as their happiness and prosperity returned. The nations would stream to them from the far corners of the Earth, and they would bear with them gifts of gold and frankincense — treasured gifts indeed. 

It didn’t quite happen that way, but as with most prophetic language, it spoke of hopes, aspirations and dreams. It was meant to heal hearts and minds and to inspire hope and energy. Its message is needed every bit as much today as in the sixth century BC, for negativity and despair threaten to get the upper hand in our collective lives.

In the time of Jesus, Judea suffered under foreign occupation and exploitation. People longed to be free and to live happy, peaceful and prosperous lives. Their hopes and dreams are also ours. 

For Paul and his followers, one of the signs of this dawning brilliance and hope was the revelation something planned for millennia: the inclusion of all peoples in God’s plan of salvation. They would share in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, through whom God embraced all humanity.

The arrival of magi from the East was a sign of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. We know virtually nothing about them — they were called “magi,” signifying a member of the Persian priestly class, adept in reading the stars. We don’t know their names or how many there were, and it doesn’t matter. They were astute, alert and always seeking the telltale signs of God’s activity. 

Coming from distant lands, they brought gifts of gold and frankincense, along with the addition of myrrh. It fits very neatly into Isaiah’s prophecy. 

Light illuminating the Earth guided them — the much discussed and debated star. In the ancient world, all momentous earthly events, especially the birth of a new ruler, were heralded by signs in the heavens. 

A new age was dawning — God was entering the world in a unique way, bringing about many changes. As with all forward movements, there was resistance and the attempt to snuff out the light. Herod was deathly afraid of losing his grip on power, but earthly power is fleeting and illusory. 

These readings, identical every celebration of Epiphany, always pose a question: how have you responded to the message of the magi? 

Darkness seems to cover the Earth at times and hope can seem an illusion. But God’s light continues to enter this world to push back at the darkness. It calls us to leave the familiar and comfortable behind and follow the magi into uncharted territory with open hearts and minds. 

The message of Epiphany was unity and the universality of God’s grace. Let us work and pray that human fear, selfishness and violence not undo God’s work.

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