January 7, 2018 - Epiphany
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. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 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.
Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season. We celebrate the arrival of the magi from the east who do the infant Jesus homage. The story of the magi is included in Matthew (but not in Luke, where the infant Jesus is visited by shepherds instead, nor in Mark or John which don’t have infancy narratives at all) to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah, which is today’s first reading:
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. 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 Gospel stories connect Jesus to numerous prophecies in Isaiah: The magi’s status as foreigners from the east – non-Jews - fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that “all nations will stream toward the Lord’s house” (2:1-5). Jesus’s common heritage with Jesse fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that, “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse”, and again that non-Jews will accept him: “The root of Jesse, set up as a signal to the nations, the gentiles shall seek out” (11:1-10). Matthew outright quotes Isaiah 7:10-14 when Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary: “All this happened to fulfill what the Lord has said through the property, ‘the virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’”.
Some people find the fact claims made in the Gospels to be dubious, and find that how Gospels themselves don’t agree on seemingly important facts render the factual veracity of the narratives questionable. It is no surprise they drift away from faith.
But the point of the Gospel stories is not to prove God’s existence or even the status of Jesus as messiah. It is rather to put into words what the ancient prophets have intuited about the nature of our relationship to God. Overwhelming, that message is that God is with us, sympathetic to us, and overwhelmingly and irrationally loving.
Image: Benozzo Gozzoli: Detail of Melchior in the Chapel of the Magi, Palazzo Medici, Florence