Building upon religious tradition
The diversity of the Church grows, welcoming all who believe in Christ
January 6, 2002, Epiphany of the Lord
By Fr. Richard Ver Bust
We have all seen paintings of the three magi worshipping Christ in a manger with Mary, Joseph and the animals all carefully arranged. Throughout history we have given names to the persons involved. We have designated different races for each. Some traditions have up to twelve magi, but we know that there were only three because only three gifts are mentioned in the gospel. With all of the details we often miss what Matthew has intended.
The word, Epiphany, is translated as manifestation. We celebrate that Jesus has manifested to us the image of God. This is the point of Matthew's story. It reminds us that that God continues to become present to us in a very human way. Jesus is present to us when we gather in prayer. He is with us in the Word of God and in the Eucharist. He is present to us in the Body of Christ called the Church.
So what was Matthew trying to do in telling this story? The three kings or three wise men were probably astrologers. They looked to the stars to find the meaning of life and history. Matthew built his story upon ancient traditions that make an important theological point. We do not know anything about whether it is historically true or not for that is not why Matthew told the story. There may have been some unusual heavenly events about this time in the planets or in comets but again this is not the point.
Matthew used elements of the story of Balaam who told of a star arising out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17), gifts of frankincense and gold being brought by camels to Jerusalem (our first reading) and kings who would bring gifts (Psalm72, our responsorial psalm). These all point to the fact that while God's actions in history touch Israel first, all people will someday know God's love. Our responsorial psalm refrain says it well "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you."
Our reading from Paul also stresses this point when Paul says "that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel."
Paul believed this was the plan of God from the beginning, but it was only gradually revealed. If so, than the church and its members had to reflect on this reality for it touched and changed the church. This does not mean that Judaism no longer had a role. Paul tells us we are coheirs and copartners so God's work continues in the people of Israel.
The point of Matthew's story is then that while the history of salvation began with Abraham and continued in Israel's history it was now being fulfilled in the lives of all peoples. Matthew probably was writing to a Jewish Christian church and was trying to help them understand why the church was changing by the rapid influx of Gentiles. They should appreciate their religious tradition and realize that they were not giving it up but building upon it.
The appealing image of the story also continued to tell all who come to believe in Christ that they were important too. As we dig deeply into the meaning of today's celebration and we look around our church we see that diversity still growing. Matthew ended his gospel with the command to the disciples to go and teach all nations bringing them by baptism into the trinitarian experience of God's love. So his story of the magi was only the first installment of this grace.
(Fr. Ver Bust holds the title of professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)