The Epiphany of the Lord – January 6, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
In becoming man, God did something that people have commented is a little scandalous. And the scandal is that it seems like God made a choice, a choice to prefer certain people over others, that he chose a certain people for his own. People get scandalized by this! Why would God prefer the Israelites over other people? I mean, the Israelites were nobody, nomads, wanderers, not even a real nation. There are the stories in the Old Testament where God wipes out entire towns and armies and nations in order to protect this people. That seems scandalous! This preference seems scandalous! It’s the same with parents. Parents aren’t supposed to have a favorite child, and everyone knows that they shouldn’t prefer one child over another; it’s kind of scandalous to think they would prefer one over another. But we’re not dumb. We know they have favorites.
In becoming man, God did something that seems scandalous because he chose to become man in a certain place, at a certain time, and be seen by a few people. Just as he had been doing all throughout Old Testament history, the Lord again made a preferential choice; he chose some over others. Why would God become man and then spend his time in the Palestine region of the Roman Empire, this small, obscure, insignificant part of the world? Because shouldn’t God be concerned about everyone?
And that’s the answer we get in the feast we celebrate today. Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord: the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, to people other than God’s chosen people. Today, the light that is Jesus Christ shines throughout the whole world, represented by the Magi from the East. Today, we discover that God hasn’t been choosing some people and forgetting about others, but that he has simply been working in the same way he has always worked: in the small, in the obscure, in the insignificant, in the unexpected, in the unforeseen.
These Magi, these wise men from the East, from lands like Babylon—these men are people that have been searching for the truth. They are men of hope, of longing. They are restless in their search. And then one day, as they are searching for an answer, looking for a sign, for anything that may point them to what they are looking for, they see it: a star. And they drop everything and follow it.
Now, we could talk a lot about the star, and what it means, the theological meaning, the symbolism, and on and on. But most biblical scholars and astronomers agree that the star was the “conjecture of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces,” forming one bright star (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 99). And what’s more, Jupiter was the cosmic representation of Marduk, the highest of the Babylonian deities, and Saturn was the representation of the Jewish people. So when these two came together, these wise men must have concluded that in the land of the Jews there had been born a ruler, a king who would bring salvation, who would bring an answer to their search. And they were so convinced of this that they set out for Palestine, to the land of the Jews.
And naturally, in search of a new ruler, they go to the palace! They show-up on Herod’s front door, ready to congratulate him on the birth of his new son. They say, “Hey! We’re here! Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Matthew 2:2). And how does Herod react? Herod was greatly troubled. Remember: this is Herod the Great, the great king and master builder; many of his building projects you can still go and see in the Holy Land today. (Guess he had a bit of an edifice complex.) And when Herod hears that there is a newborn king of the Jews, one for whom people from far away lands have come to do homage, he loses it. He is not about to be dethroned. He absolutely loses it! He goes on to have all the boys two years old and younger killed, and historians say that he even had his own sons killed. The emperor Augustus is recorded to have said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son,” because as a Jew, Herod wouldn’t kill a pig, but apparently he would kill his own sons (c.f., Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah).
Back to the Magi. The Magi showed-up to Jerusalem: the capital city, the largest and most significant city: that’s where the new ruler should be. They knock on the palace door: that’s where a new ruler should have been born. They shows up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: they‘re ready to give this new king gifts you would expect to be given to a king. But then they are sent to look in Bethlehem. Bethlehem! They are sent to a little town six miles south of Jerusalem. And even though this shatters their expectations, even though this makes little sense to them, they go! They are men of such hope and longing, men who are restless enough that they will even go to the most unlikely and unexpected of places. And that’s exactly where they find what they’re looking for.
In the most unexpected and unlikely of places, on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bethlehem, in a small cave, they come upon a poor family seeking shelter. There is a young woman and her husband and their newborn son. It’s dirty, it smells. And immediately they prostrate themselves, they throw themselves before him, and adore him. All of their expectations have been shattered, but they do not allow this to stop them. They offer their gifts, which in this scenario must have seemed rather strange. But in this small, insignificant, obscure and unexpected scenario, they discover and we discover as well just how the Lord has always been at work.
We can easily be scandalized when the Lord doesn’t work how we think he should work. We can easily become frustrated when the Lord doesn’t live up to our expectations. We can become incredibly frustrated when the Lord’s ways are not our ways. But the Magi show us the radical openness we need, the complete and total openness to the ways the Lord may be at work. We may expect a star, a huge sign. We place it all on the line, and when things don’t go as expected we can be tempted to sit down, fold our hands, and turn a blind eye—but even when there is no star in sight, we always have a guiding light (c.f., Mumford and Sons, “Guiding Light,” Delta).
The Magi come in search of the “King of the Jews.” And the only other time we hear about the “King of the Jews” is when Pilate has this inscription placed above the head of the crucified Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus’ kingship is linked to his cross; just another unexpected way the Lord works. The star points us to his birth, but it also points us to his cross. And his cross remains with us, even to this day; it is present here on this altar. Even in the darkness, even when we do not have a star, we can be sure where the star points us. And here and now, just like the wisemen, we can cast aside our expectations and preconceptions, and we can worship and adore the Lord.