Commentary for The Epiphany 6 January
Texts for the Epiphany are Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12.
By Father Doug Woods
Today is “six geese a-laying”, the sixth day of Christmas. That song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is an amusing way of going through the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. We get the word epiphany from the Greek word epifaneia epiphaneia ‘manifestation’. Though Epiphany is one of the seven Principal Feasts of the Christian year, the actual feast day gets missed by most of the Christian community because the day—January 6—occurs on a Sunday only one year out of seven. Many of us are at work Monday through Friday (and Saturday), so six years out of seven the feast is on a workday. What would your boss say if you took a day off work for a religious feast? In many churches, the Sunday nearest January 6, even though it’s still in the Christmas season, is converted to Epiphany Sunday. That’s what we’re doing at my church.
Isaiah 60.1-6 Those of you who’ve ever been in a church choir might recognize this text as a canticle, the Surge illuminare. The title comes from the first two words, “Arise, shine”. The text is particularly fitting for Epiphany.
This section of Isaiah is set immediately after a section reflecting dispute within the community after the return from the Exile. This section reads as if the community has turned a corner and is joyful because Yahweh, “your light”, has come to set things right. The community is about to enter into a period of prosperity, safety, and wellbeing, even pre-eminence among the nations. The Exile is now a thing of the past, and they can get on with their lives.
Yahweh is their light, and by comparison, the other nations are in darkness (“darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples”). So, the people of the surrounding nations will send emissaries to bring gifts (“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”). You see the connection with Epiphany, right?
Psalm 72:1-7 This is one of the “royal psalms”. Many believe it to be about Solomon, the son of David, and many would also call it a messianic psalm; it refers onward from Solomon to the Messiah.
The first seven verses are set as wishes, hopes—I don’t know whether the original Hebrew text is subjunctive here—about the king as judge (both as governor and as judge), about the prosperity which should come as a result of good governance, about taking care of those in need. If you’ve ever seen rain come after a long period of drought, you’ll see the poetic beauty of the relief when rain finally comes; this is what it will be like to have a king who rules with equity, with justice and righteousness: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”
Then, in verses 10-12, comes a theme which we’ve already seen in the reading from Isaiah: pre-eminence among the nations and the respect which that brings: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute”. “Tarshish” may have been the actual name of a place, but its appearance in scripture usually simply has the meaning ‘some faraway place’. Again, here’s where Epiphany is linked in. “We three kings of Orient are … .”
Overall, the psalm shows attributes of a good king and the shalom ‘deep, fundamental wellbeing’ which comes with that.
Ephesians 3:1-12 In scripture, a “mystery” is something which you wouldn’t expect to happen, a miracle. Ultimately, that’s where this piece of scripture is going. The coming of the Messiah is an essential hope of God’s people—at Paul’s point in history, a hope of the Jewish people. The mystery—the miracle—in that is twofold: 1) that many of God’s people did not recognize the Messiah when he came and 2) that many of the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi, did. This is the foundation of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
Matthew 2:1-12 O.K., here it is, the story you’ve been waiting for. We’ve already said that only Matthew and Luke have infancy narratives, and only Luke has the story of the shepherds, and only Matthew has the story of the Wise Men.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very particular. I won’t buy a Christmas card if it has Santa Claus on it. That’s St. Nicholas, and his celebration is on December 6. I also won’t buy a Christmas card if it has the Wise Men on it. The Wise Men are part of the heart of the Epiphany story. The card I buy for Christmas has to be about the birth of Jesus. But now we’re almost there. Epiphany will be on January 6, so we need to talk about that.
The very first line of the story sets it in history; it’s during the time of King Herod, specifically Herod the Great 73-4 BCE. Herod isn’t the king’s name; it’s his family name, and members of the Herod family ruled Palestine from 35 BCE to 70 CE. We know that he was a moody, cruel, and violent man. He was extremely jealous of his power, and he killed anyone who got too close to it, including his wife and three of his sons, so just imagine what happened when some astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
Herod was a complex man. He was, by race, a Moabite, by religion, a Jew, by culture, a Greek, and by politics, a Roman. He had been of great assistance to the Roman occupiers, and they rewarded him by making him first governor and then king. He brought a certain amount of peace to the area, or as much peace as the Pax Romana brought, itself quite brutal at times.
When the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, we’ve already said, they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The story continues, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” So, was he frightened, or did he feel threatened? Did his defensive instincts click in? Did he wonder who this competitor was? Was “all Jerusalem” frightened? I wouldn’t be surprised if they were; when Herod was angered, bad things were going to happen.
It may have been that Herod was Jewish by religion, but when he wanted to know where the birth of the “king of the Jews” was to take place, he had to refer to the religious authorities, i.e., the chief priest and the scripture experts. They quoted from Micah (5.2): “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
This passage is complex, but this much I will say: Bethlehem is very significant. When Naomi and Ruth come back from Moab (and remember, Herod is a Moabite), they come to Bethlehem. (It’s worth reading the whole book of Ruth; it’s not very long.) Ruth is a Moabite woman, but her faithfulness to her Jewish mother-in-law is great: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Go the end of the Book of Ruth and look at what springs from the story of Ruth and Naomi; if I count correctly, Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, also of Bethlehem, also of Moabite extraction. Read the rest of the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew, the massacre of the boy-children in Bethlehem. Herod would stop at nothing to defend his power.
And that’s exactly what Herod does. He cooks up a story about wanting the Wise Men to do something for him. But stop for a moment; we have to talk about the Wise Men. Were they wise? Well maybe. They were astrologers; that meant they studied the heavens. People at that time believed that the heavens controlled earthly events, so any change in the heavens was important—and this star had appeared. Do we have any idea of what the star was? Maybe. Maybe it was Halley’s Comet (which put in an appearance in 12/11 BCE), maybe it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (which happened in 7/6 BCE [did you see the recent one?]), maybe it was the Chinese Comet or Nova of 5/4 BCE? To be honest, we don’t know. We also don’t really know how many Wise Men there were. Tradition says three—probably based on the three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but scripture doesn’t say. Tradition also gives them names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
So anyway, Herod says, “Thanks, guys. It’s nice of you to tell me this. So could you do me a favour? Go and find him for me so I can go and pay him tribute too”—and we all know where this is going! So, off they go to Bethlehem, and they find Jesus, and they offer him their gifts, fit for a king, and they “worship” him. We could dedicate a lot of time to this story alone, but we don’t have time. Let’s just say that it’s significant that Gentiles come to worship Jesus, the “king of the Jews”, before most Jewish people are even aware of his existence. What will they do when they do know of him? This is part of the “mystery” which Paul refers to in his letter to the church in Ephesus—that many of Jesus’ own people will reject him while many Gentiles will accept him. Christ’s kingship is universal, and that’s the basis of Paul’s mission ministry.
Thanks for coming. It’s always fun to be with you!