Ps. 72:1-15; Isa. 60:1-6; Eph. 3:1-12; Mt. 2:1-12
Mystery, [T]he mystery of Christ … that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise … through the gospel … made known … through the church … (vv. 4b, 6, 10b, transl., Dr. Thomas M. Winger).
The Epiphany of Our Lord, so called “Gentile Christmas”, occurs thirteen days after Jesus’ birth; a recapitulation and conclusion to the twelve days of Christmas. With Christ’s nativity, Epiphany’s emphasis is of a new church in a new creation; that the Light of God, entered the world that men might know “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages” (Rom. 16:25b).
In ages past there existed a Jew-Gentile divide. God called Israel out of Egypt his “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22), to be his agent of redemption in the world (Isa. 49:6, 7). God’s Torah to the Jews conveyed the divine mysteries in muted and veiled types (Ex. 33:23).
Jesus’ birth, pulled aside the veil (Col. 1:27), enlightening God’s long held mystery. Christ, was “first to the Jew” (Rom. 1:16c; Mt. 2:2; 27:37) that Gentiles not be overwhelmed by sudden Light (Lk. 2:8).
Jews associated Messiah’s coming as coordinate with God’s temple presence (Mal. 3:1); yet temple existence with its constricted rituals served to exacerbated the Jew-Gentile impasse.
The temple precinct consisted of a progression of “gates and courts” approaching the place of God’s presence, his Holy of Holies. It is axiomatic, sinful men are not permitted into the presence of holy God; apart from resolved sin, mortal danger increased with every step that approached God’s presence.
The most outer “court” was named for Gentiles, considered by Jews epitome of human uncleanness, dead in sin. The Gentile court was therefore segregated from inner “Jewish courts” by a “soreg wall” on which was inscribed, in three languages, “no stranger is to enter … whoever is caught will be responsible for his ensuing death”.
Given Mosaic law, especially male circumcision, temple authorities ethnically administered a “closed communion”. Epiphany celebrates the revelation in Christ of the previously hidden mystery of new Israel and universal sonshipfor a new exodus, that all men might “serve God” (Ex. 9:1b) in his new Temple presence, (Jn. 1:15; 29, 36; Gen. 22:8, 14).
God’s new Temple, the church as body of Christ continues to administer “closed communion”; but in Christ, Jew and Gentile are equal entrants into her courts of salvation, no longer limited to Abraham’s gene pool; rather in the gift of faith from the HS. In Christ, access to God is available to all without fear of destruction; “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23).
On Christmas, the Babe came to men “a thief in the night”; the same sudden manner by which he will again come manifesting the universal gospel at the in-gathering of nations on the Last Day (1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 16:15). Ironically, it was Gentiles, following the Child’s star, who brought news to the Jews of their hidden “King” on Jerusalem’s doorstep.
OT Jew-Gentile divide aside; what both share is, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), such that sinful man prefers the dark to enlightenment; still the mysterious Light of man’s release from sin in Christ is for all who will receive him with hospitality. Of course antipathy toward Light is inexplicable; yet that is what Matthew’s Gospel would display.
Some two years after Jesus’ birth, magi arrived in Jerusalem to honor the prophesied “King of the Jews”. “When King Herod heard, he was shaken and with him all Jerusalem …” (Mt. 2:3). Herod was enraged and Jerusalem distressed at the news of a new king delivered on the lips of “magoi”, so resulting in the wholesale murder of Bethlehem’s “Holy Innocents”.
Modernly secular Gentiles ignore Torah as parochial; observant Jews reject grace apart from the law of Moses. Of course, the Nativity shepherds only marginally comprehended their midnight revelation from angels; still Christ, the Light of heaven impels advance in the mystery of God’s peace through his one holy catholic and apostolic church, even as Mary (who is type of the church) “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51b).
Contrary to modern day piety (as by our Gospel text), the long-riders out of the East were not “wisemen”; quite the opposite, they were “magoi” perceived by Jews and early Christians, ignorant, superstitious fools; Chaldean sorcerers and necromancers, knowledgeable in devilish arts, the epitome of all Jews despised about Gentiles.
You might well imagine that the Jerusalem priests, scribes, and later Christian congregations, were non-plussed at “magoi” being first responders to the news of Scripture’s long-awaited mystery in Christ. The magi’s arrival honoring the infant Jesus was and is totally unexpected, as is all else about God’s mystery revelation in Christ.
Knowledge of God is gift from the Father; wisdom comes only in knowing Christ, whether that revelation was to St. Peter, confessing Jesus’ identity (Mt. 16:17) or to idolatrous, ignorant, naïve “magoi” as witness to Christ’s royal birth.
The magi reasoned a new Jewish king would be born in the capitol city; but heaven’s Light is not ordered by human reason; so, the magi in Jerusalem located further direction from Scripture’s experts; Bethlehem-Ephrathah was the prophesied place. Refreshed by God’s word, these Gentiles would behold the mystery, who is Christ.
Many avert their eyes from the Light. By word and sacrament, the church is engrafted onto her crucified Jewish Branch, a remnant to be new Israel. St. John describes our Baptism, “he is in us and we in him” (Jn. 14:20, 17:23). Today’s Epiphany reveals that Abrahamic lineage no longer locates our salvation; resolving the historic Jew-Gentile divide.
Jesus was born, “King of the Jews” (19:19) but in the Resurrection, he is reborn “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16), that all who enter the righteousness of Abraham’s and Mary’s faith are sons and daughters of God. No longer are believers under law for salvation; but newly begotten children oriented to our Father’s heart.
Christians like the shepherds and magi together are on journey in following Christ’s light, the fulness of God’s Torah, “a lamp unto [our] feet” (119:105). Enlightenment begins, not from “wisemen”; rather by the gift of God’s wisdom in whom is the “fear of the Lord”.
Unlike OT Torah, the mystery of God is baptismally written on hearts and eucharistically engrafted by our participation in the crucified and risen flesh of Christ, the place of God’s new Temple worship.
Eight days post-birth, a Jewish rabbi circumcised Jesus’ flesh under Mosaic law; on the cross a Gentile spear, under Caesar’s law circumcised Jesus’ heart out of whom living water and blood flowed (Jn. 7:38), the mysterious content of God’s grace for all. Amen.