Sunday Homily, Solemnity of the Epiphany, January 3, 2021


Theme: Jesus, the Light of the Nations
by Fr. Claude Perera, OMI

Readings:

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
All nations will flow to Jerusalem.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,10-11,12-13
All nations shall worship the Lord.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6
Gentiles are coheirs of the promise of Christ.

Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
The Visit of the Magi

Background on the Readings and the Homily

The event which Isaiah 60 describes in the First Reading of today recaps the story of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. King Cyrus of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and made Persia the dominant power in the region (Ezra 1:1) in his edict of 539 said that that the Lord charged him to set free forty-two thousand exiles together with servants and animals, and to return to Jerusalem and begin the task of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 2-3). He returned the gold and silver vessels amounting to about 5000 of them robbed from Jerusalem temple by the Babylonians (Ezra 1:10). They were given one hundred talents of silver, and to one hundred measures of wheat, and to one hundred baths of wine, and to one hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much” (Ezra 7:21-22). Then they started on foot walking back to their homeland.

How does Isaiah describe this event in the reading? He first speaks of the thick darkness that surrounded them because they were in a foreign land away from their homeland where alone they believed that God could be present. Now their caravans were moving back to their motherland. It was the place of light. Look at the vocabulary of luminosity in the reading. The glory of Yahweh has risen on you. On you Yahweh is rising and over you his glory can be seen. The nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness. Lift up your eyes and look around: all are assembling and coming towards you. At this sight you will grow radiant, your heart will throb and dilate, since the riches of the sea will flow to you; the wealth of the nations comes to you.  The author expresses people’s happiness as they are walking towards Jerusalem, the city of light. It was dark all this time because the enemies have destroyed the temple, the place where God inhabited. Now that temple is going to be rebuilt and God will recommence to dwell among them.

This was a prophecy which reached its climactic fulfillment in Christ. Five hundred years later, Jesus Christ, the true light of the world was going to be born in that very same land. At His birth, a radiant star will appear. Magi or some wise men from the East would came following His star to worship him. The magi formed the sacred caste of the Medes. They functioned as priests in Persia and exerted an influence on the society. Median priests were not originally called Magi, but guardians of the fire, and it was the Chaldaeans who first named them Magi. They received royal patronage with Nebuchadnezzar gathering round him the religious teachers and wise men of the conquered people (Dn 1:3, 4, 20), the magi probably became a syncretistic sect, although they opposed idolatry.

The Jewish expectation of a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah is mentioned in the Tractate Zohar of the Gemara, the component of the Talmud containing rabbinical analysis and commentary on the Mishnah. Mt 2:2 says, “We Saw His Star in the East”The Greek word aster (“star”) in may mean a comet. Kepler, proposed a hypothesis in 1606, that in May of 7 BCE there was a remarkable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and/or Venus which were clearly observable by the naked eye. This was later confirmed by Münter, the Lutheran Bishop of Zealand in 1821, and advocated by C.L. Ideler in 1826. William’s comet catalogue (1871) mentions a broom comet that appeared in 5 BCE as recorded by Chinese scholars. If we say that the star in Mt 2:9 was a comet, then that goes contrary to the findings of modern astronomy.  For a comet could not have disappeared [unless it was a Stella Nova], and reappeared, and stood still like the Matthean star. So, what the Magi saw might have been a Stella Nova, a star which suddenly increases in magnitude and brilliance, and then disappear altogether.

Why did Matthew choose Persian Zoroastrian Magi and elements of astrology to herald the coming of Jesus Christ? Did they have any special significance which we have lost today? Was it their astrological beliefs that led them to Jesus? Courtney Roberts in his Star of the Magi … says that the Magi had hoped for a savior born of a virgin in fulfillment of prophecies made about him. Ancient Persian beliefs did have an influence on the formation of Jewish apocalyptic ideas which gave them hope as they were oppressed by the Roman yoke. Such expectations revolved round astrology rather than astronomy.Since Matthean Magi came from the East, they have commonly been identified as Persian/Median priests or astrologers. One thing which we cannot deny is that at this time due to Persian and Hellenistic influences there was a great interest in astronomy and astrology and respect for those who practised them, however contrary it may have been to Jewish faith. We cannot deny that there must have been some special divine revelation (not specified in the Bible), by which the magi came to know that the birth of this child was no mere casual happening, but part of the divine plan as depicted by an extraordinary star. 

Prescinding from all these academic considerations, let us not look for precise chronological and historical details from the Bible. Bible contains historical truths, but that is a history interpreted from the point of the faith of a believing community. We must learn to look for the salvific truths or messages clothed in various literary forms. Matthew would have been familiar with this Stella Nova. He gave it a theological significance. Matthew made the star of Bethlehem a symbol of Christ, the light of the world. The star that appeared at Jesus’ birth testified to the light He was. This light was rejected by His own people, led by their cruel King Herod the Great who preferred to be in the dark and be engaged in the activities of the evil forces of darkness. Thus, the light was diverted to the gentiles. That is how we are Christians as Paul says in today’s second reading. The meaning of the feast of Epiphany (from Greek, meaning ‘Manifestation’) is that Jesus, the Light who manifested himself to the gentiles who accepted Him, empowered them to become children of God (Jn 1:12) and be saved.    

Through baptism, Jesus offered us the same direct revelation of the light of the world. Like His own people, are we going to reject Him or be indifferent to him? On this feast of the Epiphany, we must find an answer to this intriguing query.

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