The Epiphany of Our Lord
2 January 2019
“All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O LORD”, the response to the psalm for today, Psalm 71, is one of the keys to understanding the readings for the Feast of the Epiphany. This psalm has the heading “For Solomon” and, according to Jewish tradition, was written by King David for his son. The grand geographical sweep, touching all points of the known compass, demonstrate how all-embracing and universal his kingdom will be. Another key is to be found in David’s prayer for Solomon: that as king he will show “wise judgement and righteousness” [better translation than “justice”].
The two-fold theme of a universal rule of righteousness is seen also in the first reading from Isaiah 60. The whole of this chapter is a superb poem, describing the future glories of Jerusalem. The exile in Babylon is over, but only a pitifully few, poverty-stricken exiles have returned to Jerusalem. Their rebuilt temple is far from glorious. The promise of Isaiah 60 is that all this will be completely transformed: humiliation will give place to unimaginable glory. There will be a gathering of the nations, to whom light and brightness will come through Israel. The gold and frankincense they will bring is the background to the story of the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel. Verse 21 of Isaiah 60 states that all this will happen when God’s blessings are accompanied by righteousness, a prominent theme throughout Isaiah – as it is to be in Matthew.
In the reading from his Letter to the Ephesians, we see Paul, who was convinced that his calling was “for the sake of the gentiles”, speaking of individuals of all nations now sharing in the privileges previously thought to be limited to Israel. Gentiles had generally been considered strangers to God’s promises to God’s people, but now, through Christ, they “share the same inheritance”. But the call for Christians, as it always has been for Jews, is to witness by their lives to God’s holiness – once again, the call to righteousness.
In Matthew’s Gospel, wise men “from the East”, representatives of the gentile world, travel to pay homage to the one who has already in the opening words of the gospel been called “Son of David, Son of Abraham”. For Matthew, the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 22 was of extreme importance: “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves”. Matthew’s account of Herod echoes not only the story of Pharaoh who tried to destroy Moses by killing all the male Hebrew children, but also that of King Balak who tried to destroy Moses by means of a magus “from the East”, Balaam. Just as Balaam saw the star of David rise, the magi in Matthew’s story saw the star of the King of the Jews at its rising. Matthew’s reference to the prophet Micah –“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah …” is significant, for it was Micah who both spoke out strongly against the injustice and corruption of his time, yet also saw great hope in a future salvation for the people who would live in righteousness – “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8).
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