Reading Ramblings – January 6, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6, 2018

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Context: The celebration of Epiphany is an ancient church practice that is first reliably mentioned by Clement of Alexandria who died in 215 AD. Early celebrations are pegged in early January, either January 6 or 10. As with many traditions, these celebrations were not universally acknowledged or celebrated, but began in particular places and gradually gained traction throughout Christendom as ecclesiastical hierarchy became more established and could share such practices to larger areas. It is traditionally celebrated in conjunction with baptismal themes, and with Christmas forms a two-part emphasis. Christmas emphasizes that the divine became human – was actually born as Jesus of Nazareth at a particular time and place and to a particular couple with all of the attendant specifics and details that Matthew and Luke provide us. Epiphany celebrates the reality that the man Jesus of Nazareth is also the divine and eternal Son of God. The word epiphany itself is Greek and refers to a sudden realization or revelation, when something very important becomes suddenly clear. In this case, what becomes clear is the divinity of Jesus.

Isaiah 60:1-6 This passage is likely chosen for the emphasis on light in the early verses. As St. John proclaims Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:1-5), light is also the means by which we can see clearly. The first two verses describe the reality of the birth of the Son of God, the entry of divinity incarnate into the dark realm of creation that Satan has lorded over since the Fall in Genesis 3. What we could not do for ourselves – create or sustain light – God does for us in his presence. This light will not simply be for the people of God, but will draw others to itself as well. Jesus comes as a Jew in the first century, yet his presence has and continues to drawn people from all of history and geography to him in faith. For God’s people who have suffered much, the arrival of this light is good news in terms of reconciliation, healing, and restoration. For much of the last 2500 years God’s people have been scattered to far corners of the earth, but this arriving light will bring them back together in joy and blessing. Those who have been beggars are suddenly wealthy and rich with the blessings of God manifest in material fashion. This blessing comes as the peoples of the world are drawn to the light of God’s presence among his people, and bring gifts to honor him. Note the mention of gold and frankincense that are later associated with the magi in Jesus’ early childhood (not at the manger!). We would say that this prophecy has come partially true already, and many would see it even more fulfilled since the establishment of a new nation of Israel in 1948. However I believe that the bulk of this prophecy remains yet to be fulfilled. It is fulfilled additionally in terms of the Church, to which people from all over flock in faith. But it remains to be finally and completely fulfilled in the return of Jesus, the theme that takes up the end of the liturgical church year next November.

Psalm 72:1-15 – This psalm was likely utilized for (or composed for) the inauguration of a king in Jerusalem. The psalm is designed to be general, applicable for any king, and grounded in the fundamental understanding that the king’s primary responsibility is to ensure justice and righteousness to the people. If the king can do this, all is well. If the king can’t – and what king can undertake such monumental tasks perfectly? – then problems will result. These aren’t optional responsibilities – they are the foundation of the very kingdom itself and the king can’t ignore them to focus on other things. If he can do these things he will be a blessing to his people and deserves to reign long and prosperously, free from the threat of foreign foes. It is good, right, and proper that people should pray for such a king. His success and longevity will mean their own safety and longevity as well. Of course because such a king is not humanly possible, this psalm also serves a prophetic role, pointing the congregation to look forward to the perfect king to come who can establish perfect justice and righteousness not for the span of just a few years or even decades but rather for all eternity. Such a king must be more than merely human, he must ultimately be God incarnate.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The God-Man Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, is not simply the redeemer and deliverer of the Hebrews, those who trace their lineage to Abraham. Rather, He comes to redeem all humanity, to graft in others to the tree established with the root of Abraham (Romans 11:11-24). His dominion is to extend to all of creation and all are invited to dwell in his rule. But though this is implied in God the Father’s original promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the concept had become a bit distorted over time. St. Paul indicates that God the Holy Spirit is now re-establishing that clarity in a way He hadn’t done in previous centuries. There is no greater secret spiritual knowledge to gain than what God the Holy Spirit himself reveals – God the Father’s desire to reconcile all peoples through the sacrifice of his Son. This was God the Father’s plan from the beginning, and having thus fulfilled it through the perfect obedience and sacrificial death of God the Son, Jesus, we can be confident that we have every benefit and blessing that God the Father intended to give us. Nothing is withheld!

Matthew 2:1-12 – Baptism is one common theme of Epiphany, the other is the wise men who come to give honor to the young King of the Jews. They recognize Jesus for who He is as they interpret the stars. When Herod presses his Hebrew scholars, they refer to Micah 5:2 for the location, but what about the star? What prompts the magi to journey to Judea based on a star? There are two places that could be construed as prophetic in regards to a star and a king. The first is Numbers 24:17, part of the prophecy of Balaam. The second place is Tobit 13:11-15. Tobit is not considered canonical by most Protestant Christians but was made canonical by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546 in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was deemed canonical in the Eastern church as early as the 4th century. However the Jewish people never recognized this or the other Apocryphal writings as canonical for the Tanakh, which is why most Protestants don’t accept them. Based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Tobit is believed to have been written in the 2nd century BC.

Either of these writings could be what prompted the wise men (astrologers, magicians, court counselors, etc.) to ponder the meaning of a mysterious star in relationship to Judea. However this does not seem to have been the expectation of Jewish scholars, since they don’t appear either to have noticed the star or considered it in any way significant. The arrival of the magi causes quite a stir in Jerusalem, or was it merely Herod’s consternation that troubled the population?

None of this matter to the magi. They wish to worship the king, and they follow the star to the place where Jesus and his family live. Not the manger, as we typically think (and nativity sets like to portray). It is likely that they visit Jesus and his family in Nazareth. Luke 2 tells us that after fulfilling all the obligations of the Law, takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth. This would have taken a couple of months at the most. From Nazareth they likely flee Herod’s vengeance as Matthew 2:14-15 describes. Although it is tempting to interpret Matthew 2 so that the Holy Family moves to Nazareth only after returning from Egypt, we know this isn’t the case because Luke 2:4 indicates that Joseph (as well as Mary, as per Luke 1:26-27) are from Nazareth.

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