The Epiphany, cycle C

3rd January 2016

Isaiah chapter 60, verses 1-6 is the beginning of a poem that is probably from the time when the exiled Jews had just returned to find their homeland and their city in a sorry state of abandonment. The Jews were the chosen people of God. They generally thought that being chosen meant being blest with superiority, prosperity and security from their enemies and at times their history could give this impression. But at the time of this poem, they had been captured and taken into exile by their enemies, their city of Jerusalem left to deteriorate and the grand Temple building was dilapidated. This exile was seen as punishment from God for their abandonment of His laws and their association with other gods. The prophet in the poem still has faith in God. He tells them to pull themselves up and share his vision for the future – their grandeur restored and, surprisingly, the surrounding nations coming to support and even join them; so the vision is part of what they would want but perhaps disappointing that their God would be shared by foreigners (though they imagined they would be the top nation).

In Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 2 to 6 passim, we read of a vision different from the Old Testament view; a vision of the New Testament times. It is a mystery, but it does include an openness to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, who now share the benefits of Christ and of being chosen; they are heirs now equally with the Jews and in fact there are more Gentile converts than Jewish ones. But the openness to the inclusion of theses ‘pagans’ was a particular insight of Paul who differed from even Peter at times on this issue. It makes one think of how Roman Catholics used to think they were the only proper Christians, and how Christians still often think of other faiths and atheists although they too usually have a vision of what is a good life and a hope for some better future.

The Gospel from Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-12, is part of what people know as the Christmas story. It was written at a time when a majority of the Christians seemed to be Gentiles rather than from the Jewish community and it has many allusions to the Jewish Scriptures. Certainly in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life the Jews, especially their leaders, were antagonistic towards Him. Matthew recalls many incidents from what we call the Old Testament, like the warning dreams of Joseph, the flight into Egypt (Genesis 42) when his brothers were suffering from poor crops, the threat of the Pharaoh to the baby Moses (Exodus 1) and more. This story of Matthew’s also introduces the life of Jesus who showed concern for non-Jews like the Centurion and the Canaanite woman, who seemed to be welcomed at first by the Jews but at His trial the Leaders were against Him and even Peter denied knowing Him. The star might draw on the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24 (see here), but astronomical phenomena were thought to accompany the birth of kings and emperors. Is this pattern of betrayal and of the unexpected still the way things are in the world since Christ?

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