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, translation, Dr. Thomas M. Winger).
The Epiphany of Our Lord, so called “Gentile Christmas”, occurs thirteen days after Jesus’ nativity, recapitulating the Christmas season to conclusion; The Epiphany’s emphasis is of a new church coming into being with the Christ child’s advent. The revelation is, that in Christ the Light of God entered the world that men know “the mystery … kept secret for long ages” (Rom. 16:25).
In ages past there existed a Jew-Gentile problem. God called Israel out of Egypt to be “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22), his redemptive agent in the world (Isa. 49:6, 7); yet God’s Torah conveyed mysteries in muted types veiled through the preaching of Moses (Ex. 33:23).
But at the birth of Jesus, Torah’s veil was pulled away (Col. 1:27), enlightening of God’s long secret mystery. Christ, out of heaven, was “first to the Jew” (Rom. 1:16c; Mt. 2:2; 27:37) that Gentiles not be overwhelmed by the suddenness of the Light. God, is considerate of man’s frailty, muting his glory come into our darkened condition (Lk. 2:8).
Jews anticipated Messiah’s coming coordinate with his temple presence (Mal. 3:1). Yet temple construction and ritual order seemed to exacerbate Jew-Gentile impasse.
The temple precincts consisted of “courts” and “gates” progressively approaching the Holy of Holies, the place of Presence. Apart from legally unresolved sin, danger to life increased as one approached Presence.
The outer most “court” was named for Gentiles, whom Jews, considered already dead in sin. Their court was separated from inner temple “courts” through the “Beautiful Gate” by a “soreg wall”, inscribed to Gentiles in three languages, “no stranger is to enter … whoever is caught will be responsible for his ensuing death”. On ethnic-lines, temple authorities administered “closed communion”.
Today’s Epiphany celebrates the hidden mystery of God’s new Israel and universal sonship coming out of the world by a new exodus, that all men might “serve God” (Ex. 9:1b) in his new Temple, no longer by ethnicity (Jn. 1:15; 29, 36; Gen. 22:8, 14); rather for universal service in Spirit and Truth.
In God’s new Temple the church administers “closed communion”; but in Christ, Jew and Gentile are equal entrants into the courts of salvation, no longer limited by Abraham’s gene pool; but alone by the gift of Jesus’ faith. Access to God’s presence in Christ is available to all without fear of our destruction in his presence; “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23).
At the Babe of Christmas came “a thief in the night”, in the same manner he will come again to fully manifest the mystery at his ingathering of nations on the Last Day (1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 16:15). Ironically, it was Gentiles, following his Star, that brought news to the Jews of their “King’s” arrival on Jerusalem’s doorstep.
The OT Jew-Gentile problem aside; what Jews and Gentiles share, is: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Sinful man prefers the darkness of ignorance to God’s hidden enlightenment for long ages; still delivery of God’s Light, man’s release from sin in Christ, is for all receiving it with hospitality.
Christian joy at the Light’s presence contrasts those preferring this present darkness. Antipathy toward the Light is inexplicable, yet today’s Gospel exhibits the inexplicable. Some two years-on from Jesus’ birth, Gentile magi arrived in Jerusalem to honor the prophesied “King of the Jews”.
“When Herod the king heard [of the birth], he was shaken and all Jerusalem with him …” (Mt. 2:3). Herod’s rage and Jerusalem’s distress at news of a new King, from ignorant and naïve magi, resulted in the wholesale murder of Bethlehem’s “Holy Innocents”.
Gentiles mistrust Torah as parochial; Jews reject grace apart from law, as failing to comprehend the content of their Scriptures. Of course, the Nativity-shepherds only marginally comprehended their midnight revelation; still the Light of heaven impels our advance in God’s peace to a one holy catholic and apostolic church, even as Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51b).
Contrasted with today’s piety, these magi long-riders from the east were not “wisemen”; quite the opposite, they were “magoi” perceived both by Jews and early Christians, ignorant, superstitious fools. The “magoi” were Chaldean sorcerers and necromancers steeped in devilish arts, epitome of all the Jews despised about Gentiles.
You might well imagine Jerusalem priests, scribes, and later Christian congregations, utterly non-plussed at the “magoi” as first responders to the news of Scripture’s long-awaited mystery in the Christ child. Magi arrival to honor the infant Jesus is totally unexpected, as with all else about God’s mystery in Christ.
Man’s knowledge of God is pure gift of the Father, a wisdom known only in Christ by the HS; whether revelation to St. Peter confessing Jesus’ identity (Mt. 16:17), or to idolatrous and ignorant magi witnessing the Child’s kingly birth.
The magi reasoned the new King would be born in his capitol city; but heaven’s light is not ordered by human reason; so in Jerusalem the magi needed scriptural direction to the King’s birth place, Bethlehem-Ephrathah. Refreshed, these Gentiles, after the Jewish shepherds, were next to behold the Mystery, who is Christ.
We pray for those averting eyes from the Light, who refuse God’s grace and truth in Christ. By word and sacrament, the church is engrafted onto her crucified Jewish Branch, God’s new remnant, Israel. St. John describes Baptism, “he is in us and we in him” (14:20, 17:23).
Today’s Epiphany proclamation reveals that lineage itself is an insufficient locator of God’s salvation. Jesus was born, not just “King of the Jews”; but in the Resurrection, “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16), that all entering Abraham’s righteousness by faith in Christ are equally sons and daughters of God. Believers are no longer subservient to law; but newly begotten from above are oriented in a new identity to our Father’s heart.
Christians, Jew or Gentile, like shepherds and magi are on journey 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 Wisdom of God in whom we are given faith and “fear of the Lord”.
Unlike the in-stoned Torah, the church’s mystery is written on hearts by Baptism; eucharistically engrafted by our participation in the crucified and risen flesh of Christ, the place of God’s new Temple worship.
Eight days following Jesus’ birth, a rabbi circumcised his flesh under the law; on the cross, under the law, a Gentile spear circumcised his heart out of which living water and blood flowed (Jn. 7:38) to be the NT content of God’s grace for all. Amen.