Epiphany of the Lord (January 7, 2018)
The journey is a profound vehicle for a story: as old as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the exodus of the Jews - as new as the story of you and me. The first reading told of a journey of kings to Jerusalem with gifts of gold and frankincense.
The Gospel reading from Matthew is the writing of a Jew to fellow Jews - about another Jew who is the fulfillment of their promised Messiah. Matthew tells the story with wonderful images and great drama. Like every good storyteller, Matthew weaves tempting previews and the possibility of danger.
King Herod had a terrible affliction, paranoia; he killed his wife and three of his sons and later would kill the Holy Innocents. Herod was not interested in showing homage to the newborn king. He got information from the scribes, then lied, then used it in an attempt to maintain power. For some unknown reason, the scribes did not follow up on it themselves: “and you Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah, a savior will arise from you,”
The scene at the Bethlehem stable has more participants. We know how Mary and Joseph got there. The shepherds came - and had it easy. The journey was short; the directions were excellent; the light was bright; the music was great!
The magi had it tougher. There was much confusion. The magi followed a mysterious star; they sought help from Herod, who introduced them to the Jewish scriptures that were explained to them by experts, scribes. The starlight may have been poor, especially by day, but it was enough to get them there; they found Jesus.
Today, we celebrate their arrival and the meaning of it. “Epiphany comes from the Greek word for ”“appearance,” “manifestation.” Until the fourth century the western church celebrated three principal feasts: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas, narrated by Luke, was not a big feast. The significance of epiphany, narrated by Matthew, is the celebration of Jesus’ first contact with gentiles.
Closer to the birth of Jesus, the shepherds came to the stable. Christianity in the west sees shepherds held in higher esteem than middle-easterners. God, characterized as a shepherd, spans both testaments. Numerous major figures were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Hear the words from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In Matthew [2:6:] “From you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Jesus is the consummate good shepherd. Shepherds’ love for sheep is not dependent on sheep being well behaved.
In the middle- east, shepherds with their 24/7 jobs were unable to keep Jewish precepts regarding eating and washing. Also, they allowed sheep to nibble in others’ pastures; they were therefore looked upon as thieves. Their inclusion by Luke is significant. It was they came down from the hills to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.
Matthew includes the magi, the wise men. They came from the other end of the economic spectrum. They were wealthy enough to make the long journey and to bring precious gifts. They were smart enough to ask directions when they were in doubt. Although they may have enjoyed great prestige in their homeland, but to the Jews they were gentiles, foreigners. They did not enjoy the divine election of Jews. They, also, came to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.
We remember that one of the first major problems with the young, Christian church was to decide whether new, gentile Christians had to first become Jews before being accepted. The belief in divine election of Jews was an ongoing, powerful force.
The Epiphany celebrates the fact that regardless of position on the economic continuum or religious opinion, all are welcome to the table in Christianity.
It challenges us as individuals and as institutional church to be inclusive: always. This wonderful parish, in my opinion, has no problem with this individual challenge and cannot change an institution, but . . . It is the lesson for today in the scriptures.