SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD (ABC)

Readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Universal Royal Messiahship of Jesus Christ
The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord always falls between January 2nd and the 8th.  The feast celebrates the Christmas mystery of the manifestation (epiphany) of the universal dominion of the newborn King as made visible to the Magi who were the first Gentiles to worship the Christ.  Once again the symbolism of light is used to dramatize the Christ appearing to a world darkened by sin.  He is a divine "Light" shining in the darkness that was prophesied by the prophets of God.  Christ is the Light of the world who drives out the darkness of sin and death, and He calls His disciples to be a "light" to others.  May the Church's prayer at the beginning of the Mass be manifest in your life and in the life of your faith community: "Father, You revealed your Son to the nations by the guidance of a star.  Lead us to Your glory in heaven by the light of faith.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

The First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6 ~ The Glory of God's Church
1 Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!  Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.  2 See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.  3 Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance.  4 Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.  5 Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.  6 Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

The focus of the prophecies in Isaiah 60:1-64:11 is the restoration of Jerusalem, the Old Covenant Church, as the dwelling place of the glory of the Lord from which all nations will hear about God's universal gift of salvation.  The most remarkable feature of the restored Jerusalem will be her radiance, mentioned in verses 1-3 in the beginning of the poem and again at the end in verses 19-22.  It is a radiance that comes from glory of God.  The Church sees in Isaiah's prophecy the symbols of her universality.  The nations of the earth will come in pilgrimage to the Church from the east and the west. They will bring frankincense for worshipping the One True God and gold as a gift for Christ the King and His Kingdom of the Church.

The visit of the Magi and their worship of the Christ, which we celebrate in our liturgy today, is the fulfillment of verse 6: Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.  As the Gentile Magi from the east beheld the Christ Child: They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Mt 2:11).

There are also eschatological overtones in this passage that point to the heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time which St. John described in the last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation (see Rev 21:9-27 and 22:5).  Some of the wording is virtually the same; for example in our reading compare Isaiah 60:3 with Revelation 21:24

Isaiah 60:3 Revelation 21:24
60:3 Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance. 21:24 The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure.

Other verses from Isaiah 60 that are not in our reading can also be compared with passages in the Book of Revelation: Verse 11 can be compared with Revelation 21:25-26; verse 14 with Revelation 3:9; and verse 19 with Revelation 21:23 and 22:5.  The hope of the people of God in the Old Covenant for a restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, with the promise of the gift of universal salvation and the hope of the early Christians in their mission to fulfill Old Testament prophecy by carrying the Gospel of salvation to all nations is in continuity with our hopes in the Church today.  We hope for the Second Advent of Christ, the new heaven and new earth and the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:2).  The new Jerusalem will be the Church, the Bride of Christ, which will come down from heaven as a city that has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure (Rev 21:23-24).  It is this radiant image of the Church to which all God's people, past, present and future look with hope.

Responsorial Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13 ~ The Promise of the Messiah-King
The response is: "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you."
1 O God, with your judgment endow the king, and with your justice, the king's son; 2 he shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment.
7 Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.  8 May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
10 The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.  11 All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall rescue the poor man when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.  13 He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.

Although the title of this psalm is attributed to Solomon in verse 1, verse 20 identifies this psalm as: The end of the psalm of David, son of Jesse.  This only means that this is the end of the collection of Davidic psalms running from Psalm 51 to Psalm 72 and is different from first book of Davidic psalms in Psalms 3-41Psalm 72 is a royal psalm in which the king, as a representative of God, is the instrument of divine justice (verses 1-4 and 12-14) and a blessing for his people and the world (verses 5-7, 15-17).  He prays for wisdom in judging his people with justice and the same wisdom for the royal heir who will succeed him (verses 2-13).  "Justice" and "righteousness" are attributes connected with the saving power of God (see Ps 9:4, 7; 19:9; etc.).

Psalm 72:8, 10-11 ~ May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
10 The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.  11 All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.
As God's kingly representative, the House of David was to be an image of godly justice to the world.  It was a dynastic kingship that God promised David would endure forever (see Davidic covenant in 2 Sam 7:11-16; 23:5).  All nations must give homage to God's kingly representative who is endowed with the righteousness of God.  The psalmist lists the boundaries of the known world which at this time were from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, and from the Euphrates River (referred to as "the river" in verse 8), to the islands and lands of southwestern Europe (called "the ends of the earth"). 

Psalm 72:12-13 ~  For he shall rescue the poor man when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.  13 He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.
The future Davidic king is pictured as a King-Messiah. He will be endowed with the righteousness of God that will enable him to rescue the poor and the afflicted and to save the lives of the poor.  The reason all nations acknowledge the King-Messiah is because he has promised deliverance to all the oppressed of the earth.

Jewish tradition identifies this ideal Davidic king as the Messiah.  Christian tradition has interpreted these verses as a prophecy of Jesus of Nazareth, the fulfillment of which is manifested in the adoration of the Magi (verses 10, 15 and Mt 2:1-12) and the universal reach of the salvation Jesus brought as the King-Messiah.  St. Peter affirmed the fulfillment of Jesus as the Davidic King-Messiah in his homily at Pentecost in 30 AD in Acts 2:25-36, saying of David: But since he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:30)And Pope St. Leo the Great said: "On this day, too, David prophesies in the psalm when he says: All people will come to prostrate themselves before you, Lord; they will bless your name; and also: The Lord makes his victory known, and reveals his justice to all the nations.  We know that this came to pass when the three wise kings, called forth from a distant country, were led by a star to see and worship the King of heaven and earth.  The docility of those wise men who followed in the wake of the star gives a model of obedience to us, so that in the midst of all the possibilities open to us we may be servants of the grace that draws all men to Christ" (St. Leo the Great, In Nativitate Domini, 3).

The Second Reading Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6 ~ The Good news of God's Universal Gift of Salvation
2 You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for your benefit, 3 namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.  5 It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit 6 that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.

The mystery (verse 3) was God's plan to deliver Gentiles, along with Israel through Christ's work of redemption, that had been kept hidden from the Old Covenant people.  The implementation of that plan to bring the Gentiles to salvation begun by Jesus' Apostles and disciples (see Acts 8:26-38 and 101-48) was specifically given to Paul by Jesus as his life's mission at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:15); it was a mission that was later confirmed by St. Peter and the Apostles (Gal 2:7-9). 

Ephesians 2:5b-6 ~ ... it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit 6 that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
Paul's statement on the equality of the Gentiles as coheirs with Jewish-Christians was affirmed by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 15.  St. Peter addressed the council and said of the Gentiles: My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts (Acts 15:7b-9).  At the Council of Jerusalem, the early leaders of the Church recognized that God's gift of universal salvation, prophesied by the prophets like Isaiah in our first reading, was now fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 ~ The Gentiles Come Bearing Gifts to Christ the King
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."  3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel."
7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.  8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."  9 After their audience with the king they set out.  And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Matthew 2:1-2 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." 
The town of Bethlehem was a little village about five miles from Jerusalem, where the herds of the Tamid lambs for the twice daily liturgical sacrifice were kept in the fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was also the birthplace of King David and where the prophet Samuel anointed David as God's future King-Messiah of Israel.  Matthew's announcement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem establishes Jesus as the "new David," in fulfillment of the prophecy of the prophet Micah (see 1 Sam 6:1, 10-13; Mic 5:1).  How perfect that Jesus, the "Living bread" should be born and laid in a feeding trough in the village whose name meant "house/place of bread."

At the time Jesus was born, Judah was a vassal state of the Romans and ruled by a Roman ally, an Idumaean (descendant of Esau, Jacob/Israel's elder brother) named Herod.  Sometime after Jesus' birth, Magi from the east had followed an unusually bright star and arrived in Jerusalem.  In profane Greek, the word Magi [magos] was applied to members of the Persian priestly caste who possessed occult knowledge revealed in the movement of the stars and planets.  It was a common belief in ancient times among Gentile peoples that the stars determined the destiny of men and the appearance of certain celestial phenomena signaled the birth or death of kings.  The "wise men" who traveled from the "east" had observed a new star that they believed was the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy that foretold the birth of a new Jewish king.  The Jews lived in exile in Persia for 70 years after the Babylonian conquest.  It is possible that during that time the prophecies of the Messiah (the promised Davidic king) became known to the Persians, and they connected those prophecies to the new star they followed to Judah.  This could not have been an ordinary star or planet because it did not rise and set like ordinary stars but led them for months on their journey from the east.

Matthew's telling of the story of the Magi recalls several Old Testament prophecies:

The prophecy that involved a future king and a "star" in Scripture was the prophecy of the Aramaean prophet Balaam prior to the conquest of Canaan:  I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel, that shall smite the brows of Moab, and the skulls of all the Shuthites, till Edom is dispossessed, and no fugitive is left in Seir.  Israel shall do valiantly, and Jacob shall overcome his foes (Num 24:17-19 NJB)This was a prophecy that was fulfilled in the kingship of David (c. 1010-970 BC), but many Church Fathers believed that the star in this prophecy is also fulfilled in Jesus Christ just as He is also the "staff from Israel" (Num 24:17 and Is 11:1). 

The Magi innocently decide the best place to find the new king was in the household of the current King of Judah.  However, King Herod was understandably shaken and called in the chief priests and scribes to tell him what Sacred Scripture recorded about the birth of the Messiah.  If Herod was at all familiar with the Balaam prophecy, he would be shaken.  According to the Law of Moses, only an Israelite could rule Israel (Dt 17:14-15) and Herod was an Idumaean, a descendant of Esau of Edom who was regarded by most Jews as a false king.  The Balaam prophecy predicts that Edom will be dispossessed.

The priests informed King Herod that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judah, the city of King David, and they quoted from verse 1 of the prophecy of the Messiah in Micah 5:1-4a: They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel" (Mt 2:5-6).  They would also have told Herod that the Messiah, like his ancestor David, will be a "shepherd" to His people (Mic 5:3).

That the prophecy describes the Messiah as the "shepherd" of His people is significant.  God told the 6th century BC prophet Ezekiel to prophecy against the "shepherds" of Israel, the chief priests who failed to lead the people in righteousness.  In Ezekiel 34:10-31, Yahweh promised to come against Israel's priests who had "scattered the flock":  I myself will look after and tend my sheep ... bringing them back from foreign lands where they have been scattered (Ez 34:11-16; emphasis added).  The prophecy continues: I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd (Ez 34:23); identifying the future Messiah as being a descendant of King David who was born in the town of Bethlehem.

Herod's response to the report of the priests and scribes was to question the Magi to determine when they first saw the star.  Then, pretending that he also wanted to do homage to the new king,  he asked the Magi to let him know what they discover in Bethlehem.  The Magi found the child Jesus (not the infant) living with Joseph and Mary in a house in Bethlehem and not in a stable.  There is no discrepancy between Matthew's account and Luke's story of the birth of Jesus.  At least a year had passed since Jesus was born, and the Holy Family had moved from their temporary shelter into a house in the village.

The gifts the Magi gave the Christ-child had cultural and theological significance.  They prostrated themselves in worship, giving the Christ-child the gifts of gold (a gift fit for a king), frankincense (incense used in worship and offered by priests), and myrrh (an aromatic spice produced from the gum resin of certain bushes or trees used in the preparation of the dead).  The Magi were the first Gentiles to respond to God's call to the Gentile nations to come to salvation through Christ Jesus.  The story of the Gentile Magi who sought out the Christ, as opposed to Herod's chief priests who made no effort to find Him, is a precursor to the rejection of Jesus by His own people and the acceptance of Jesus' message of salvation by the Gentiles. 

Matthew 2:12 ~ And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
The angel told the Magi to avoid Herod and to return home by another route.  We must also take this advice to heart by avoiding those who present themselves as a hindrance to our faith or to our mission to honor the Christ and to spread His Gospel message of salvation.

Catechism References:
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6 (CCC 1066)
Matthew 2:1-12 (CCC 486); 2:1 (CCC 528); 2:2 (CCC 439, 528); 2:4-6 (CCC 528); 2:11 (CCC 724); 2:13-18 (CCC 530); 2:13 (CCC 333); 2:15 (CCC 530)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013