Not everyone who celebrates Sunday's Feast of
the Epiphany will appreciate -- or even want to hear -- the message Matthew
conveys in the Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12).
I always remind my students of Rev. Dennis
McCarthy's definition of "canonicity." The late Jesuit said:
"We have these specific books in the Bible because they've helped the
most people over the longest period of time to understand their faith."
Matthew's story of the Magi forces us to zero
in on the last words of Father McCarthy's definition -- "to understand
The scriptural writings were never intended to
give people their faith. Only after they believed did they turn to the
sacred writings to understand the implications of their faith.
Writing for a Jewish/Christian community,
Matthew is attempting to show how non-Jews reached faith in Jesus without
going through the faith-process his own readers had experienced.
The Magi are astrologers, not kings. Obviously
Gentiles, they follow a path to Jesus forbidden to Jews. We who hear this
narrative today simply don't share the same religious environment its
original listeners shared.
Jews were prohibited by their Mosaic Law to use
heavenly bodies for anything except light, and instruments to determine
times and seasons. Those who dared "follow" stars were to be put
to death. All Jews knew Yahweh never employed stars as means of divine
Yet, that happens here. And not only here, but
also in the parallel situations presented in the other two readings for
In the second reading (Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6),
Paul presumes some in Ephesus are just as locked into the same limited view
of God's actions as some in Matthew's community. That's why he refers to
Gentile participation in Christianity as a revelation "not made known
to people in other generations."
No one could have foreseen the day when these
non-Jews would become "co-heirs, members of the same body, and
co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."
God not only works outside the restricting
lines we create; He completely and haughtily erases those lines.
In the first reading (Isaiah 60:1-6), the
prophet attempts to prepare his audience for such "unreligious"
actions by talking about the day when Jerusalem will benefit from the
generosity of Gentiles: "Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries
from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and
frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of Yahweh."
Giving those words even more significance is
that, when the prophet proclaims them, Jerusalem is in ruins. If the city is
to be rebuilt, Gentiles will have to help -- something most Jews would have
Some of us find the message of these three
authors unacceptable. As Gentiles, we're not uptight about the role Gentiles
are given in the passages. But formed by catechism classes and dogmatic
methods of instruction, it's difficult to step outside the boundaries in
which we're so comfortable.
Our sacred authors would have regarded such a
limited mentality as "unbiblical faith."
I suggest you look around after Sunday's Gospel
is proclaimed. If someone spontaneously throws his or her fist into the air
and yells, "Yeah!" you've just discovered someone for whom
Scripture was originally intended.