First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-6
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
The first reading from what Biblical scholars call, Third Isaiah, was written at a time when God has fulfilled his promise and the Israelites were released from Babylon. They were granted permission to rebuild the temple, which they started to do… but then they got caught up in rivalry and questionable activities for personal gain. Their crops began to fail and there was drought and thing were generally not going very well. Today’s reading opens with the announcement of light breaking forth in darkness as an image portraying God’s saving entry into the brokenness of human bondage and suffering.
Arise, shine; for your light has come!
the glory of Yahweh is rising upon you!
Isaiah’s words are an affirmation that light will ultimately prevail even in situations so bleak as to threaten to extinguish the human spirit. Such a belief can be dismissed as utopian only by those who have not experienced the dark moment when all human resources have been exhausted.
In our own time, Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero are unforgettable conduits of the light of God’s justice breaking through the darkness of state sanctioned oppression and injustice. Oscar Romero, with the sights of his assassins’ rifles trained upon his heart, offered both the bread of Christ and his own life as an affirmation of God’s light breaking through the darkness. Mandela lived to see the darkness of his imprisonment transformed by God into the desire for peace and reconciliation with his former captors.
In the second reading Paul tells us that God’s grace commissioned him to share with us how the mystery was made known to him by revelation. Again, the lectionary leaves out that Paul tells us that if we read what he has written previously in this letter will enable us to perceive his understanding of the mystery of Christ. Part of what Paul wrote in that part of the letter is: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Also previously in the letter, Paul offers the following prayer for us, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” In other words, Paul is praying for revelation to come alive in us.
Today is the feast of the Epiphany, and the word epiphany comes from the ancient Greek word, epiphaneia, which means manifestation or striking appearance. In short, epiphanies are─ for us─ those “aha” moments, when some deeper understanding of our faith comes bursting forth into our consciousness. In other words, a transformative light revealing more of God’s presence enlightening the dark or blank spaces of our awareness.
Oscar Romero’s epiphany came through the murder of his fellow priest and friend who was killed trying to protect his poor villagers. Mandela’s may have been a series of little insights over his 27 year imprisonment. In the case of both these men, God’s light breaking into their lives, diminished any will for revenge and turned them into men of peace.
An epiphany doesn’t have to be some huge spiritual insight that breaks into our consciousness with a big bang. So let’s not ignore the little epiphanies that just gently and fleetingly tap into our consciousness. These little epiphanies are the ones that indeed may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Christ, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which Jesus has called us.
In today’s gospel, Matthew has “wise men from the East” instead of shepherds coming to pay homage. In so doing Matthew conveys that the Messiah has come─ not just for the people of Israel─ but also for outsiders. The Magi bring gifts fit for a king. Gold is always associated with wealth and royalty. Old Testament references tell us that frankincense was a holy perfume used in the sanctuary; and, that myrrh was used in the anointing of the High Priest. In the New Testament, John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes for the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. Some have reflected that Matthew’s use of myrrh in today’s gospel story connects Jesus’ birth to his death and that the gift of frankincense anticipates the glory of Christ’s resurrection.
Unlike Luke, who closes his nativity story with, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. ...” Matthew closes with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew has transformed the praise-filled return of the shepherds into the Magi’s flight from Herod and his ill intentions.
If we look through the prism of symbolism, the star becomes the light of compassion, the Magi become strangers with gifts and Herod represents fear-induced potential obstacles. Using this we can look at this Gospel narrative in terms of current affairs. When we look at our current government policies in Canada and the United States, we can see them becoming more and more xenophobic. To gain support for these policies, politicians try to instil xenophobia, the fear of strangers, into the general public. For example, Canadian statements and policies about war resisters as cowards and the Roma people as criminals; and in the United States negative statements and stereotypes about Mexicans, Muslims and other racialized groups. It appears the aim is to plant the seed of fear in the public mind, specifically, the fear that immigrants or refugees from certain countries or of certain racial or ethnic groups are suspect and untrustworthy. The Gospel, on the other hand, suggests that when we turn away the stranger, we may also be turning away the wealth of gifts they bring.
If I were to sum up today’s reading in a nutshell, I say the insights are that God’s light will always break through the darkness (if we let it); that as we strive to know the mystery of Jesus, the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened; and that, as the Letter to the Hebrews says “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Those are a few of my thoughts on the readings, please share yours.