Posts Tagged 'Matthew 2:1-12'

For Jan. 4, 2015: Epiphany

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60:1-6 proclaims, in the midst of terrifying darkness, an outbreak of light at the hands of God. Nations shall see the Lord’s glory, all the children of God will come home, and the treasures of the nations will stream in as gifts of hearts grateful for God’s graciousness and, finally and fully, unafraid.

The Response                                                           Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 calls down the Lord’s blessings on a newly crowned king and the king’s people. This is a portrait of the ideal monarch, who blesses the lives of all the people like rain after long drought, who has the very land in his care, to whom great gifts come because he rescues the helpless and the lowly.

The Epistle                                                                 Ephesians 3:1-12

Saul of Tarsus may have been the very best Jew ever—till a light like the one Isaiah described burst upon him and made him Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul shares the light: through Jesus Christ and by God’s design, salvation is for all the world.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 2:1-12

The only gospel to tell the story of the wise men visiting the Christ Child is Matthew’s. These men were astrologers, at a time when astrology was astronomy; it is Psalm 72:10 that has us call them kings. The prophecy that the scribes quote in verse 6 is adapted from Micah 5:2.

 

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are the same for each of the three liturgical years. There is much to be said for rereading them, but it is vital that we read them freshly and that we see them in the here and now.

Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is speaking of heaven or the hereafter. Isaiah’s great light and great joy arise not in heaven but through the thick darkness that covers earth and peoples in verse 1. And if the King’s Son of the psalm is dealing gently and righteously with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and those who suffer violence, it follows that there still exist those who flaunt their worldly wealth, exploit the poor, tread on the oppressed, and savage and ravage whoever they can.

The Epiphany story shows us the opposite number to the King’s Son and a much more familiar portrait of power and its misuses. What Herod hears in the wise men’s report of the wondrous birth is a threat to his own power that he simply cannot countenance. Matthew 2:16-18 tells us what Herod does when the foreigners escape his clutches without telling him exactly where and when to find the infant usurper: he attempts to subvert the prophecy by sending troops to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s male infants and toddlers. As far as we know, neither his generals nor his advisers seem even to have tried to suggest that the order might be wrong. Instead, they just do their jobs, as generations of humans have done in similar circumstances and continue to do.

But the scandal of the gospel that Paul preaches, from experience, is that no one—no one—is too foreign, too lowly, too wicked or merely too wrong to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Furthermore, if violence is not God’s way to counter violence, as we know from the cross, then it is up to me to stop resorting to violent thoughts, words, and deeds (yes, even on the freeway). Speaking truth to power, even respectfully, may and probably will still earn me violent responses. But how else is my little corner of the world to learn the ways of God’s peace if I myself neglect to live it? And how else shall the darkness lift, unless I do my part?

 

For Jan. 5, 2014: Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:7-14

From the part of the book of Jeremiah called the “Book of Comfort”, chapters 30 to 33, comes this remarkable song of praise: though Jacob—that is, Israel—has been scattered and afflicted, the Lord will gather the people back together, even the blind and the lame, and will give them comfort and joy.

The Response            Psalm 84:1-8

In the reading from Jeremiah, God comes to the people to give comfort. Psalm 84 depicts the joys to be found in the house of the Lord—but not only in the house of the Lord, for even dry places will flow with water.

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

The letter to the Ephesians may or may not have been written to inhabitants of Ephesus, which in Roman times was a great trading city of Asia Minor, or by the apostle Paul. Whoever its author and original audience, its first chapter glowingly describes the great grace of God in choosing to adopt us humans as God’s own children.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

The passage from the gospel of Matthew, familiar from the Epiphany lections, tells  of the wise men or Magi seeking the newborn King. A striking feature of the story is that they depend on astrology to identify his star. It would seem that the Star and the baby whose birth it foretells speak in ways people can hear—if we will listen.

 

Ponderables

The Episcopal lectionary mostly follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and in it the readings for the second Sunday in Christmas are the same each year aside from choices in the Gospel reading that emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ birth or early life. Often the Epiphany displaces the second Sunday of Christmas, and as a result the readings (except for the reading from Matthew) are relatively unfamiliar for the date.

The relative newness offers a useful shift of perspective: with the visitation of the Wise Men, we have not Isaiah’s exuberant welcome of the wealth that will stream into Jerusalem for the King of Kings, but Jeremiah’s prophecies in the Book of Comfort. Those singled out for comfort, alongside people obviously blessed, are the blind, the lame, and those pregnant or in labor—who would have been ritually unwelcome among the perfect, clean, and righteous. Yet, thanks to Jesus, one can come before God exactly as one is.

Nevertheless, the promises were not fulfilled in the lifetime of the original hearers. Jacob (which is to say Israel) has not been restored as promised, nor did the House of the Lord in the psalm withstand Roman assault, nor did Christ come again within the lifetimes of those to whom the epistles were written, nor did the Holy Innocents escape slaughter at the hands of Herod.

It is possible to raise the question of credibility here. Jeremiah for one seems to feel the tension between hope and lack of fulfillment: unlike Isaiah, he sees and greets the darkness as well as the light.

But what if it is the task of those who persist in hope to hold hope on behalf of all who have lost hope?

For Jan. 6, 2013: Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

Isaiah, writing about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, addresses Jerusalem: though she lies in ruins, the glory of the Lord has risen like daybreak! From all corners of the earth, from all of our own personal Babylons, all God’s children—all of us—shall stream home, whether or not Jerusalem was ever home, bringing wealth by the shipload and camel-caravan load in praise and thanks to the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of righteousness streaming out from Jerusalem and material wealth streaming in. It falls to Paul, writing from prison to the Gentile church in far-off Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price, extended to all peoples, of salvation through Christ Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 2:1-12

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are practically incandescent: not now the hushed and heart-melting glow of Mary’s tiny son in the straw, but Isaiah’s blazing light as a beacon for all nations, the psalmist’s righteousness and deliverance in the very hills and mountains, the dazzling insight given Paul of God’s plan for salvation, and of course the Star whose refulgence captures us if, like the eastern mages, we care to look and follow.

But Epiphany, unlike Christmas, reminds us that there is also darkness and that it is deep. That people are alienated from their homes and, ultimately, from each other is news neither to Isaiah nor to us. That the poor and lowly are merely the most afflicted by oppression, violence, poverty, and misuse of power was as evident to the psalmist in the ninth century before Christ’s birth as it is to us in the third millennium after. That rulers and authorities are badly in the dark was as clear to Paul as it is to any 21st century student of current events. And that terrified or even indignant rulers resort to dark deeds in order to maintain power is no less evident in the organized religion’s history of inquisitions, intifadas, and cover-ups than it is when Herod sends troops to massacre the boy babies of Bethlehem lest one of them grow up to challenge his right to his throne.

Thrones, even in a 21st-century democracy, are common. Though I’ve made a point of avoiding obvious ones, I find I occupy many: as parent, as customer, as teacher or assessor, as person who determines a budget or a schedule, even as driver in possession of right-of-way. I am aware of the temptation to occupy those little thrones like Herod—not I hope, to the extent of degrading someone simply because I could, but it’s hard to resist barking an order, delivering a snub or put-down, downplaying someone else’s gifts (or my own), even resisting the healing or the oversight I need.

The darkness, in short, is not just Out There, it is In Here, and Herod is my brother.

The Light that judges and redeems and heals and loves is thus not only for the Gentiles as well as the Jews but for the Herods out there as well as the ones in here. And it calls me to spend less time finger-pointing and more time following.

For Jan. 8, 2012: Epiphany

The Reading            Isaiah 60:1-6, 9

As Isaiah writes, about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Jews who had been deported to Babylon have returned, only to find Jerusalem in ruins and the Temple desecrated. Isaiah calls Jerusalem itself out of darkness and despair: the glory of the Lord will rise like daybreak, and, from all corners of the earth, all God’s children and a great deal else will finally come home to the praise of God.

 

The Epistle            Ephesians 3:1-12

There are riches, and then there are riches. Isaiah and the Psalmist told us of material wealth streaming into Jerusalem, but it falls to Paul, writing from prison to the church at Ephesus, to explain: all that abundance from all the world is merely the thank-you for the gift beyond price of salvation through Christ Jesus.

 

Further thoughts

What a series of images the Epiphany scriptures give us! First, Isaiah shows us Jerusalem, the city of God personified, and the light of God will be there though all else be dark. All the scattered children of God will come together, and kingly riches will arrive by ship and in camel caravan after camel caravan, and even the camels—which, having no hooves, were unclean in Mosaic law and therefore unacceptable before God—will now join everyone and everything else in praising God.

Then the Psalm continues the theme: the King’s Son will rule so righteously that even the mountains and hills bring justice. Kings will pay him tribute, but the heart of this King’s Son will be with the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the victims of violence.

But who is this King’s Son? Here we start dealing in paradox. The King’s Son that Matthew shows us is born in a barn in the backwater of Bethlehem to an unwed mother, and about to be in trouble with the local law for the first but not the last time in his life. The brightest minds in Jerusalem, though they pore over the Torah, have no clue that he exists until a group of non-Jews from the pagan East show up asking for directions. That these foreign magi are not deterred by the humbleness of Jesus’ birth is remarkable. But look at the gifts they bring: what baby needs frankincense (which is for God) and myrrh (which is for burial)?

It falls to Paul, sitting in jail yet paradoxically free, to explain the mystery. This Jesus comes to be King as God always intended kingship: not strutting and taking while the little people die, but assuming personal responsibility to the point of dying so that the least of God’s people might live. This willing sacrifice redefines “God’s people”: the chosen race of Abraham is now, at least potentially, the whole human race.

And what of the riches flowing to Jerusalem, and what of the offerings of the magi? All this wealth will arrive not as the tribute that is exacted by a tyrant king but as the outpourings of grateful hearts.


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