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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

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), and 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 two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Universal Royal Messiahship of Jesus Christ
The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord always falls between January 2nd and 8th.  The word "Epiphany" means "appearance, revelation, or manifestation."  Today's feast celebrates the first of three joyful wonders that signified Jesus' identity as the long-awaited Messiah.  The first epiphany is the visit of the Magi who followed a star from the east to find the King of the universe and to give Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the Gospel Reading).  The second is Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, and the third is the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine in His first miracle.  In the Gospel accounts of these three epiphanies, we hear that God appears in creation.  He reveals Himself in a star, in the sky above the waters of a river in the form of a dove and a voice from Heaven, and in the gift of wine that comes from stone jars of water that will prefigure the miracle of the Eucharist.

In the First Reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, the symbolism of light dramatizes the hope of God appearing to a world darkened by sin.  The passage looks forward in time to the Jesus Christ, "the Light of the world" who drives out the darkness of sin and death (Jn 1:5; 8:12).  He is a divine "Light" shining in the darkness prophesied by the holy prophets of God. 

The response Psalm Reading response prepares us for the Gospel account of the visit of the Gentile Magi: "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you."  In remembering the visit of the Magi and their adoration of the Christ-child, we celebrate the Christmas mystery of the manifestation (epiphany) of the universal dominion of the newborn King.  In that event, God was made visible, clothed in human flesh, to the Magi who were the first Gentiles from among "the nations" to give worship to the Christ. 

St. Paul, in our Second Reading, writes about the mystery that was God's plan to deliver Gentiles along with the Jews through Christ's work of redemption.  Paul writes that the implementation of that plan to bring the Gentiles to salvation began with the Gospel message delivered by Jesus' Apostles and disciples (see Acts 8:26-38 and 10:1-48).  However, Paul also writes that the Gospel of salvation was specifically given to him by Jesus as his life's mission at the time of his conversion experience (Acts 9:15). 

In the Gospel Reading, the gifts the Magi gave the Christ-child had cultural and theological significance.  They prostrated themselves in worship, giving Jesus 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-child, as opposed to Herod's chief priests who made no effort to find Him, is a precursor to the rejection of Jesus by His people and the acceptance of Jesus' message of salvation by the Gentiles. 

Jesus Christ, the true Light, gave a mission to His disciples in every generation when He called them to be a "light" to others.  May the Holy Spirit instill this mission in you, and may the Church's prayer at the beginning of the Mass be manifest in your life and 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.  In its restoration, Jerusalem will be the dwelling place of the glory of the Lord from which all nations will hear the news of God's universal gift of salvation.  The most remarkable feature of the restored Jerusalem will be her radiance, mentioned in verses 1-3 at the beginning of the poem and again at the end of the poem (verses 19-22).  It is a radiance that comes from the glory of God.

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).

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 that carries on His earthly mission of mercy, comfort, and forgiveness until His return.

There are also eschatological overtones in the First Reading that point to the heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time, which St. John described in the Book of Revelation (see Rev 21:9-27 and 22:5).  Some of the wording is virtually the same; for example, from 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.

We can also compare other verses from Isaiah 60 that are not in our reading with passages in the Book of Revelation: compare Isaiah 60:11 with Revelation 21:25-26; 60:14 with Revelation 3:9; and 60:19 with Revelation 21:23 and 22:5.  In the final chapter of the Book of Isaiah, God unites the hope for a restoration of the Jerusalem Temple after the Babylonian exile with the promise of the gift of universal salvation.  The "good news" of God's gift of universal salvation through Christ Jesus became the focus of the early Christians in their mission to fulfill Old Testament prophecy by carrying the Gospel of salvation to all the nations on earth. 

The promise of universal salvation is in continuity with our hopes in the Church today.  It is the mission of the Church to reach every corner of the earth with Christ's message of salvation before the Second Advent of Christ.  His return will bring about the end of the Messianic Era and the end of the opportunity for repentance and conversion in the Last Judgment and the creation of a new heaven and new earth.  At the time of His glorious return, heaven and earth will dissolve in fire 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, described in Revelation 21:2, is 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.
Response:
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.
Response:
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.
Response:
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.
Response:

The title attributes this psalm to Solomon; however, verse 20 identifies this psalm as The end of the psalm of David, son of Jesse.  This identification only means that the psalm is the end of the collection of Davidic psalms running from Psalm 51 to Psalm 72, and it is different from the first collection 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.).

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.
As His civil representatives to the people (God's religious representative was the High Priest), Yahweh intended that the kings of the House of David serve as His image of godly justice to the world.  It was a dynastic kingship that God promised David would endure forever, with each Davidic king recognized as a "son" of God (see the promise of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam 7:11-16; 23:5).  All nations, writes the psalmist, must give homage to God's kingly representative endowed with the righteousness of God.  The psalmist lists the boundaries of the world as he knew it, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, and from the Euphrates River in the north (referred to as "the river" in verse 8), to the islands and lands of southwestern Europe (called "the ends of the earth"). 

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.
Verses 12-13 describe the future Davidic king as a King-Messiah.  Endowed with the righteousness of God, he will have compassion for the poor and the afflicted, and he will save their lives.  All nations will recognize the King-Messiah righteousness.  They will acknowledge Him and serve Him (verse 11) because He brings deliverance to all the oppressed of the earth.

The books of the prophets and Jewish tradition identify this ideal Davidic king as the Redeemer-Messiah (i.e., Is 9:1-6; 11:10; Jer 23:5; 30:9; Ez 34:23; 37:24).  Christian tradition interprets the verses from this psalm as a prophecy pointing to Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:31-32).  The Church sees the fulfillment of the verses (especially verses 10-11) manifested in the arrival of the Magi and their adoration of the Christ-child (see Mt 2:1-12).  The Fathers of the Church also saw fulfillment in Jesus' compassion for the afflicted (verses 12-13) 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 wrote in his encyclical on the birth of Christ: "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 divine plan to deliver Gentiles, along with Israel, through Christ's work of redemption that had been kept hidden from the Old Covenant people.  The resurrected Christ specifically gave St. Paul the mission to implement the plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles at the time of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:15).  It was a mission confirmed at a later by St. Peter and the Apostles (Gal 2:7-9). 

5b 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 Church affirmed the equality of the Gentiles as coheirs with Jewish-Christians at 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 the fulfillment of God's promised gift of universal salvation, prophesied by the prophets like Isaiah in our first reading, and carried out in the work of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ that is His Church.

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.

The town of Bethlehem was a little village about five miles south of Jerusalem.  Shepherds kept the herds of the Tamid lambs for the twice-daily liturgical worship service and sacrifice 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 Persia, following an unusually bright star, arrived in Jerusalem.  In profane Greek, the word Magi [magos] referred 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 Magi believed the new star they observed was the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy that foretold the birth of a 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 promised Davidic Messiah became known to the Persians, and they connected those prophecies, including the prophecy from Numbers 24:17 of a star/ruler advancing over Jacob/Israel, to the new star they followed to Judah.  The star the Magi followed could not have been an ordinary star or planet because it did not rise and set like ordinary stars.  Instead, it led them for months on their journey from the east to a specific destination.

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 before the conquest of Canaan who, inspired by the Spirit of God, said:  "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)The prophecy of the future ruler who was "a star" advancing "from Jacob" (Num 24:17), is undoubtedly fulfilled in the kingship of David (c. 1010-970 BC).  However, many Church Fathers maintained the prophecy is only partially fulfilled in David but completely fulfilled in Jesus, son of David (Mt 1:1), who is the star/ruler in the prophecy, 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 Judea.  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.  The restrictions of the Law for a legitimate king of Israel undoubtedly made Herod uneasy.  According to the Law, only an ethnic Israelite could rule Israel (Dt 17:14-15), but Herod was an Idumaean, a descendant of Esau of Edom.  It was for this reason that most Jews regarded Herod as an illegitimate king.  Herod also would not have missed the fact that the Balaam prophecy predicts the dissolution of Edom; a troubling prophecy for Herod the Edomite/Idumaean.

The priests informed King Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah, the city of King David.  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 probably also told Herod that the Messiah, like his ancestor David, will be a "shepherd" to His people (Mic 5:3).

That the prophecy describing the Messiah as the "shepherd" of His people is significant since in Biblical language "shepherd" is a synonym for "ruler" or "leader."  God told the 6th-century BC prophet Ezekiel to prophecy against the "shepherds" of Israel, the kings and elders 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; underlining 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 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, Herod asked the Magi to let him know if they discover a new king 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 passed since Jesus was born, and the Holy Family 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 Jesus' rejection by His own people and the acceptance of Jesus' message of salvation by the Gentiles. 

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 to their 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 our mission to honor the Christ and to spread His Gospel message of salvation to the ends of the earth (Mt 28:19-20).

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; revised 2018