Epiphany, traditionally celebrated January 6 but moved to a Sunday (January 8 this year) for Catholics in the U.S., is the celebration of God in Jesus Christ made manifest to the world, represented by the Magi. The Gospel text for Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12, is suggestive, presaging in subtle ways things good, bad, and ugly, showing that Jesus is a cause of division, encountering resistance from the beginning of his life, signaling his royalty, his priesthood, and his sacrifice, and foreshadowing the universal nature of the gospel and Church.
First, the Magi come to worship Jesus. As “wise men from the East” seeking his star, they are pagan astrologers from as far away as India or even China. The significance of this is often missed, because we Christians today often forget just how Jewish early Christianity was. Jesus was a Jew, and the Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a conservative, Pharisaic Jew rooted firmly in the line of Abraham, who was the first and paradigmatic Jew (cf. the genealogy in Matt 1). Given the character of Matthew’s Gospel, that pagans are the first to worship Jesus is jarring.
Second, Herod and “all Jerusalem” are “troubled” when they hear that the Magi have come seeking a king newly born. The Roman Senate had given Herod the title “King of the Jews” in 40 BC and then sent him east to earn his kingdom by conquest. “King of the Jews” is the precise phrase the Magi use, and it’s no wonder Herod is troubled; there cannot be two kings, and if Heaven (represented by the star the Magi follow) has appointed a new “King of the Jews,” it means Herod’s days are numbered.
It’s significant here that “all Jerusalem” is troubled with him, and that Herod then summons the chief priests and scribes to his side. Matthew is subtly setting up two groups: those who accept Jesus (Joseph, Mary, and the Magi, thus far), and those who reject him, which, at this point, is everyone who should accept him. Jesus is the King of the Jews, come to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21), and yet instead of rejoicing at his arrival, “all Jerusalem” is troubled. Indeed, the chief priests and scribes show from the Scriptures that Jesus is indeed the Christ, but it doesn’t matter. In spite of what God says in Scripture (for when Scripture speaks, God speaks), Herod will seek to kill the little baby Jesus (Matt 2:16-18; one might draw attention to the Feast of Childermas/The Holy Innocents); when he asks the Magi to bring him word when they’ve found Jesus so Herod can worship him, he’s lying. Ancient readers knew Herod was paranoid, mercurial, and brutal, and the text has signaled already that he was “troubled” while giving no clue whatsoever he’s had a change of heart. There cannot be two kings. One has to disappear. Note also on this point that in v. 12 we are told that the Magi were “warned in a dream not to return to Herod.” In Matthew, stars and angels and dreams reveal the divine perspective on events and persons; thus, the narrator is telling us readers that Herod is bad indeed .
In this initial murderous rejection of Jesus is foreshadowed a major theme in the Gospel of Matthew: Israel’s rejection of Jesus the Messiah. Consider Matt 21:43 in the context of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, in which the Church as a new “nation” is given the rule of the Kingdom in light of that rejection, and Matt 27:25, in which “all the people” (reminiscent of “all Jerusalem” being “troubled” along with Herod in 2:3) clamoring for Jesus’ crucifixion call down a curse upon themselves: “His blood be upon us and our children.” It’s important to note when considering such terrifying texts that Jesus and the twelve disciples were all Jews; the Church was founded on a Jew, Peter (whose Jewish name is Simon Bar-Jonah, cf. Matt 16:13ff); and for some years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Church was Jewish. One is reminded of Walker Percy’s description of his religion as “that Jewish sect, the Catholic Church,” and Pope Pius XI’s condemnation anti-Semitism in reminding us, “Spiritually, we are all Semites.”
Third, the Magi worship Jesus with deep joy. In v. 10 Matthew employs a wonderfully redundant Semitism, echarēsan charan megalēn sphōdra, which, literally, is “…they rejoiced a great joy very much.” In the pulpit it’s a good rule to bring up Greek and Hebrew next to never, lest one confuse the congregation while playing the pedant, but a potential homiletic point is obvious: the worship of Jesus is an occasion of great joy (which is oft something other than raw outward emotion). Catholics will note also that Matthew mentions the Virgin Mary’s presence; surely this is of consequence. Mary is present the first time Christ is worshiped in the Scriptures. Mary is not a hindrance to worship, but presents Jesus to the world so that he might be worshiped.
What then of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? One tradition suggest that all these gifts point to Jesus’ death, as one would use gold to purchase a tomb while employing frankincense and myrrh for embalming. Another traditional interpretation holds that the gold points to Jesus’ royal nature as king (which the Gospel has already made plain), the frankincense to his priesthood (as the ancients believed burning frankincense bore their prayers to the heavens), and the myrrh to his death (as it’s used in embalming; cf. John 19:39, which mentions it in the context of Jesus’ embalming). Did Matthew intend any of this? I would suggest we don’t and can’t know what’s in an author’s mind, but we can explore how words function in their historical socio-linguistic contexts and the documents in which they’re found. Given that the Gospel has presented Jesus’ kingship, will present Jesus as a priest offering his body and blood as a paschal lamb at the Last Supper, and has already intimated Jesus’ death in this very passage, the traditional understanding of the significance of the gifts has merit and is edifying. Indeed, nothing about it transgresses the rule of faith, and, for Catholics, the fourfold sense remains the normative way of reading Scripture (cf. CCC 115-119).
What, then, might be the homilist’s general line of approach for Epiphany?
The Christmas season is indeed a season of joy, and thus it perhaps feels counterintuitive to dwell on Jesus’ death come Epiphany, signaled by Herod’s and Jerusalem’s rejection of baby Jesus and by the Magi’s gifts. While hinting at Christ’s eventual suffering, The Gospel of Luke’s account of the conception and birth of Jesus is generally joyous and rosy (though hints of Jesus’ and Mary’s coming suffering are to be found). Matthew’s Gospel, by contrast, is much darker, portraying a situation in which the baby Jesus is thrown into the world under mortal threat. The hints in our text for today are inescapable.
Christians in the West have perhaps become culpably cozy and comfortable with the world, for we have had a relatively privileged position for some time, though that is steadily changing. But, like the Gospel of John and St. Augustine, this Gospel text for Epiphany reminds us that the world is not indifferent to Jesus. Rather, it rejected him from the beginning. The coming of Christ reveals not only God to us, but also us to ourselves, showing up the world for the situation it is in: estrangement and hostility to God. Thus, the homilist may do well to remind his congregation that the normal situation for Christians in the world is the situation of Jesus, a situation of rejection and persecution. Christian existence is cruciform.
A downer? Perhaps. But also a crucial approach, for two reasons. First, the persecution of Christians around the world is real, and it is deadly. (For rough and ready resources, see here, here, here, and here, for starters.) We in the West need to be more cognizant of that fact so that we might stand with our suffering brothers and sisters in prayer and action. Second, sooner or later the reality that the Christian life can be rough will hit home, and those whose preachers prepare them pastorally fare better when in life push comes to shove.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary.