The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Feast of Presence and Presents

ISAIAH 60:1-6
EPHESIANS 3:2-3, 5-6
MATTHEW 2:1-12

Even before the feast of Christmas was established in the fourth century C.E., Christians in Egypt were celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord as a unitive festival which commemorated both the incarnation and baptism of Jesus. As early as 210 C.E., Clement of Alexandria referred to Epiphany in association with Jesus’ baptism and in a sermon preached on Pentecost in 386 C.E., the golden-mouthed John Chrysostom called the feast the first of the Christian festivals, celebrating the appearance of God on earth.

Derived from the Greek word epiphanos or manifestation, the term was originally used to designate important events in the life of a king or ruler such as his/her birth, ascendancy to the throne, or official visit to a city. Adapted by Christians, epiphany was the word which initially referred to the first and final comings of Christ (Titus 2:11, 13). Thereafter, the term also described the miracles, healings and signs of Jesus as epiphanies or manifestations of divine power.

Most scholars believe that the feast was assigned its original date of January 6th to counteract an Egyptian winter solstice festival in honor of the sun god. Pagans believed that the waters of the Nile acquired miraculous powers and even turned into wine on the night of the solstice. Perhaps these popularly held beliefs prompted the church to associate the day first, with Jesus’ birth, then his baptism, then with the wedding and the sign of water-turned-into-wine at Cana.

Also called Theophany, the feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in some Eastern churches as the Day of Holy Lights (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 39.1). The sacrament of baptism, also called enlightenment by the early Christians was conferred on Epiphany and from ancient times the Eastern church has blessed baptismal water on this day. According to Antonius Piacenza (ca. 570 C.E.) the waters of the Jordan were annually blessed on Epiphany and it became customary to officially announce the dates of Easter and other movable feasts after the reading of the gospel on January 6. In the Middle Ages, it was customary, on Epiphany, to bless homes with the newly blessed water and with incense. Because of its continuing association with water and light, two of the elemental symbols of our faith, and because of its celebration occurs at the beginning of a new calendar year, perhaps the feast of Epiphany can afford contemporary believers the opportunity of a “teachable moment.”

We stand as it were, on the threshold of yet another year, 1997 C.E. or A.D. (Anno Domini); this year of the Lord has been consecrated by the continuing manifestation of God in our midst. With this gift of a new year comes the renewed challenge to be worthy ministers of and witnesses to the Lord in whose dying and rising we have been baptized. Washed in the sacramental waters, Christians are to make a daily effort to manifest, through their words and works, Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, a triumph which is to be shared by all the peoples of the world (second reading). Having been cleansed, believers are also enlightened and thereby charged with the task of dispelling the many darknesses which threaten to confuse the truth and cover justice with a cloud (first reading).

In some countries, the feast of Epiphany is also an occaion for gift-giving, following the tradition of the magi who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus (gospel). In their commentary on Matthew’s gospel, W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann (“Matthew”, The Anchor Bible, Volume 26, Doubleday and Co. Inc., New York: 1971) suggested that beyond their customary symbolism (as gifts which commented on Jesus’ special role in God’s saving plan), the gifts were tools of the trade for magi, magicians, et al. Perhaps they were being offered as a declaration that the magi were pledging to dissociate themselves from former practices. This being so, then this feast may also present believers with an occasion for surrendering as gifts anything and everything which may hamper the fullest epiphany of God’s love and goodness in every human heart.

ISAIAH 60:1-6

Anyone who has seen Paris at night will readily agree that it is well deserving of the title, City of Lights. In addition to its myriad apartment buildings and office towers, all the historical monuments, museums, and churches of the city are illumined, giving tourists and residents alike a nightly taste of wonder. New York’s twinkling skyline has also thrilled its share of admiring visitors, while Las Vegas strip fairly lights up the desert sky with its somewhat garish display of electrical extravagance. In today’s first reading, the prophet known as Trito-Isaiah shares with his readers a similarly dazzling vision of a radiant city. Jerusalem is aglow, not with the power of electricity or neon but with the very glory of God (vv. 1, 2). What this unnamed prophet’s predecessor had promised, viz., that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all humankind shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5) was now in the process of being realized.

A general consensus of scholars agrees that Trito-Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was probably exercised among the exiles who had recently returned from Babylonia. His visions of a restored and refurbished Israel served both to encourage the returnees and to provide an impetus to spur their efforts at spiritual, political and economic renewal.

Initially, the prophet pictured Jerusalem as a woman, lying prostrate on the ground (v. 1), having suffered the loss of her most precious relationship (Isaiah 50:1), the children to whom she had given birth (Isaiah 51:17-23), and her freedom (Isaiah 52:1-2). But, Israel’s time of being brought low was at an end. The exile over, Israel was established once again in covenantal relationship with Yahweh; her children were brought home and her freedom reinstated. Regaled with blessings, Jerusalem was summoned to “rise up in splendor” (vs. 1) and to bask in the radiance of God’s glorious presence.

Glory, or kabodh in Hebrew, is another term for God’s self-manifestation or epiphany. Because of God’s glory, the darkness of alienation and separation that had covered the earth and the thick clouds of sin and sorrow were dispelled (v. 2). Moreover, God’s glorious presence imparted a radiance to the people themselves (vv. 3,5), a radiance that would light the way of others home to God (v. 4). Then, that reflected glory would reach out to beckon all the nations of the earth to God (vv. 5-6). The various peoples named in the prophet’s vision (which extended to Isaiah 60:22) were from the Arabian peninsula and had been associated with Abraham and the Hebrew peoples from their earliest ancestral days. In the prophet’s vision, Abraham’s title as Father of many nations, was being fully realized.

This vision of a new Jerusalem, as home to all the earth’s people, is echoed in the Christian scriptures (Revelation 21:22-27) where it represents the hope for the future union of all people in God. As John J. Collins (“Isaiah”, The Collegeville Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN: 1989) has observed, the prophet knew that such a wonderful state is not the stuff of history or of human experience but represents an ideal or a goal which can serve as a guide for our values.

On this feast of the epiphany of God, this ideal is renewed in our midst where it remains to challenge us each day. The mutual respect and sharing of all peoples can indeed become the stuff of history and of human experience if the continuing manifestation of God’s presence in our midst is taken seriously and carefully attended.

EPHESIANS 3:2-3, 5-6

Several years ago, the Coca Cola Bottling Company launched what was perhaps its most memorable advertising campaign. As melodious voices sang the catchy tune, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. . .”, a series of smiling faces were shown representing an international array of races, cultures, creeds and walks of life. A “feel-good” commercial which became popular world-wide the coke ad offered consumers a glimpse of the beautiful diversity of humankind. Although, no one was so naive as to believe that a soft drink could forge a harmonious union among the world’s peoples, the advertisement was a poignant reminder that this ideal has yet to be achieved.

When the author of Ephesians considered the ideal of a universal harmony, he referred to it as “God’s secret plan” or mystery (v. 3) which had been hidden but was now revealed. Honored to have been a recipient of this special revelation, the author regarded himself as a minister commissioned by Christ to make the mystery known to others, viz. that Gentiles (all the nations) were to be included in God’s saving plan.

Despite the fact that Jews had for centuries occupied a special place in the economy of salvation as God’s chosen people, and despite the contempt with which gentiles were generally regarded, Jesus’ saving mission has made gentiles coheirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the same promise (v. 6). All three terms begin with the same Greek prefix syn which signifies unity and/or sameness. These three words remind believers of the necessity of chipping away at the barriers of hate and prejudice which people sometimes erect to segregate themselves from others.

Traditionally Ephesians has been attributed to Paul but most scholars agree that it was the work of an anonymous author very familiar with Pauline theology. Standing firm on the shoulders of Paul and the apostolic tradition, the ancient writer looked ahead from that vantage point and labored to help the evolving church near the end of the first Christian century to find and exercise its role. As Ivan Havener (“Ephesians”, The Collegeville Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN: 1989) has noted, Ephesians has made a unique contribution among the New Testament writings, in that it describes the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. For their part, Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque praise Ephesians for its understanding of the church in relationship to the world. The church’s “apostolic ministry is a service whereby men (sic) are constantly reminded of the dialog with the world that must go on, of how all human mentalities, all cultures must be welcomed.” (Guide for the Christian Assembly, Fides Press, Notre Dame: 1974).

For contemporary believers, who today mark the feast of God’s loving manifestation to all of humankind, this excerpt from Ephesians serves as a challenge. If God’s secret plan is still a secret, withheld from those who are its rightful heirs and beneficiaries then we have fallen short of our marks (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) and have been remiss in the ministry which has been entrusted to each and all of us.

MATTHEW 2:1-12

What Trito-Isaiah had envisioned in the first reading, viz., that nations would be drawn to Israel by the radiant glory of the Lord, and what the author of Ephesians had proclaimed in the second reading, viz. that both gentiles and Jews are heirs and sharers of God’s saving promises, the Matthean gospel enacts and substantiates through the narrative of the magi. Foreign astrologers, drawn to Judea by the light of a star at its rising, the travelers from the east came with “gold and frankincense (and myrrh), proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6 = Matthew 2:10-11). At their journey’s end, they were privileged to see the ruler who was to shepherd all God’s people (v. 6).

Although this story has provided fodder for the imaginations of artists, poets and scientists over the centuries as various explanations have been proffered regarding the star, the mysterious visitors, and their gifts, the theological implications of the narrative far outweigh its details. The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke represent a précis, as it were, of the proclamations of the gospel which follow and these special narratives include in that précis an accurate awareness of Jesus’ identity (christology) and saving mission (soteriology) for the sake of humankind.

In his unparalleled study of this unique literature, Raymond E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday and Co, New York: 1979) has explained that the narratives were written “to make Jesus’ origins intelligible against the background of Old Testament expectations” and “to supply a transition from the Old Testament to the gospel -- the christological preaching of the church presented in the imagery of Israel.”

Recall the fact that the Matthean evangelist supported his gospel with a series of formula citations or quotations from the Hebrew scriptures which were shown as being realized in the person and mission of Jesus. Therefore, rather than concentrate solely on finding an adequate scientific explanation for the star,

although such an explanation (e.g. that a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7-6 B.C.E.) was admirably represented by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604 C.E., it may prove more beneficial to allow the evangelist to direct our attention to the Old Testament book of Numbers. Therein the oracle of the seer, Balaam, foretold that “a star will rise from Jacob and a ruler will rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The astral particulars of the Matthean infancy narrative underscore the belief that Balaam’s oracle was being realized in the birth of Jesus.

The authentic faith of the foreign astrologers, as compared to the disingenuousness of Herod, the chief priests and scribes was also a portent of things to come. Whereas the gentile magi came with gifts to do homage, i.e., proskynesis, to bend the knee or prostrate themselves before Jesus (v. 11), Herod, et al., would soon be shown as plotting to be rid of him (v. 16).

In this episode of the wise men, Matthew also offers his readers a first taste of the triple reaction, viz., disbelief, rejection, and persecution that would characterize the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the church. Moreover, the evangelist reminds contemporary believers that true faith can grow among the least likely people and that it is the church’s mission to recognize and foster that faith, however, whenever, wherever and in whomever it is made manifest.

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