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The Epiphany of the Lord

Sunday, January 05, 2014
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Amongst the very final words we pray each day, at the Office of Compline, are those of Simeon at the Presentation:

“At last, all-powerful Master,
you give leave to your servant
to go in peace, according to your promise.
For my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared for all nations,
the light to enlighten the Gentiles
and give glory to Israel, your people.”

(Luke 2:29-32)

The penultimate line assures that Christ has come not just to save the people of Israel, but so that all peoples might be saved. Not peoples in some abstract sense, but you and me.

Matthew does not include the Presentation in his account of Jesus’s infancy, but nonetheless, this good news is at the heart of our celebration on today’s solemnity.  For today we recall that God, by the star visible to the Magi, reveals Himself to all the nations. Whilst we may presume that the shepherds in the nearby fields who visited the infant Christ were Jewish, Matthew tells us that the Wise Men come from the East and would therefore be Gentiles.

One question that today’s Gospel prompts is that of why wise men from the East would come seeking the King of the Jews. We would expect Jews to be familiar with the prophecy of Isaac that we hear in today’s Old Testament reading, foretelling of a coming light which will draw nations and kings to its dawning brightness, but could we expect this knowledge from men of other nations? One possible answer is contained in the words of Balaam, a soothsayer in the service of the King of Moab. He was a non-Jew and worshipper of other gods who was dismissed and executed as an agitator for idolatry, but his saving prophecy, recorded in the Book of Numbers 24:17, would have been known outside Israel:

“I see him, but not now;
 I behold him, but not near:
 a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
 and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel....”

The final aspect of today’s solemnity, so rich in theological content, which I shall comment on is that of faith and reason. The concept of who the Magi were encompasses a wide range of meanings. In one of the principal meanings they are understood to be members of the Persian priestly caste. Gerhard Delling tells us that they were regarded as “rulers of a distinctive religion” but one in which religious ideas were thought to be “strongly influenced by philosophers” to the extent that Greek philosophers have often been depicted as their pupils. Pope Benedict XVI draws on this when he describes them as more than “just astronomers”. He tells us that “they represent the inner dynamic of religion towards self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of ‘science’: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.” The truth must not then be confined to intellectual propositions, it must be something we live out. Like the Magi on observing the star, we must act. Our star is the Word, the Word of Jesus. All of us are called to act on this Word and make it known, and for members of the Order of Preachers, the recent words of Pope Francis seem particularly apt: “Christ’s message must truly penetrate and possess the preacher, not just intellectually but in his entire being.”

Toby Lees OP


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