Friday, January 6, 2012

The Feast of Epiphany and Gentile Christianity

(Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, The Uffizi, Florence, 1475)

Today marks the traditional date for the Feast of the Epiphany (though, as in the Anglican Church, usually celebrated on the Sunday between 2-8 January), which commemorates the visit of the Magi bearing their gifts to the baby Jesus narrated in Matthew 2:1-12. This feast has special significance to the vast majority of present-day Christians who, like me, are Gentile in their origin.

Matthew begins his Gospel by identifying the subject of his biographical work as “Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1, my trans.). These titles, as well as the order in which he lists them, are essential for an understanding of his work. By identifying Jesus as “Messiah” (“Christ”) and “son of David,” Matthew claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the heir of the Davidic/Messianic promises who would inaugurate the long-expected everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:4-17; Pss. Sol. 17:21). Simply put, he was the rightful heir to Israel's throne then occupied by Herod the Great as a Roman puppet. This “son of David” was also, according to Matthew, the “son of Abraham,” the status Jewish people proudly saw themselves as having (e.g., Matt 3:9; 8:11-12; 4 Macc 6:17, 22: 18:1; t.Ned. 2.5; Sifre Deut 311.1.1 et al.). By this designation Matthew refers back to Genesis 12:1-3 (and subsequent promises) and thereby identifies Jesus as the “seed” of Abraham in whom the promise of blessing for all the world is fulfilled. Jesus, in other words, was Israel's king for the whole world. How this blessing is extended and received is clear from the conclusion of the Gospel, where the resurrected Jesus commissions his disciples in Matthew 28:19: people from all nations—even Celtic Americans like me!—receive the Abrahamic blessing when they respond to the gospel and become disciples (i.e., “followers”) of the “son of Abraham.”

This is how the visit of the Magi must be understood in Matthew's story. These astrologers “from the east” (Parthia? Babylonia? Arabia?), having seen his “star” (the tailed comet recorded in the Spring of 5 BC?) deduced (because of the planetary massing of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in 7-6 BC?) that one had been “born” (techtheis) “King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2). Herod (thus implicitly viewed as a usurper to the throne) and “all Jerusalem” responded to this news the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians had more than a millennium earlier when they received news that Moses had been born: they were “terrified” (etarachthē [Matt 2:3]; cf. Josephus, Ant. 2.206, 215). In contrast to this Jewish response (foreshadowing the passion narrative; cf. Matt 27:1, 25, 37), the Gentile Magi found Jesus and “worshipped” (prosekynēsan) him. In Matthew's narrative, it is clear that the Magi are being presented as the firstfruits of the anticipated pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to the true God (cf. Matt 8:11-12; Isa 60:6; Ps 72:10-11, 15 [cf. 72:17!]).

All too often we Gentile Christians forget that the one we love and serve is, first and foremost, Israel's Messiah, and that it is by God's grace alone that we “wild branches” have been “grafted in” to replace the “natural branches” who have been broken off the olive tree because of their unbelief (Rom 11:17-24). But, thanks be to God, the natural branches will one day be grafted back on (Rom 11:25-27)! Let us, then, remember what St. Paul said in a later letter: “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13, NIV). Soli Deo Gloria!

I will close by quoting the Collect for Epiphany from The Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

O GOD, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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