The Divine Manifestation Compels Action
The Gospel of Matthew, Epiphany of the Lord
Gospel Reflection Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord (Mt 2:1-12)
Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany, where our Lord makes himself manifest as a new-born child. Although the noun epifaneia appears only six times in the NT (2 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 1:10; 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13) and the verb epifaino only four times (Lk 1:79; Acts 27:20; Titus 2:11; 3:4), the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are rife with stories of God’s epiphany or self-disclosure. More popularly known of these are the baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9ff//Mt 3:13ff//Lk 3:21ff), his transfiguration (Mk 9:2ff//Mt 17:1ff//Lk 9:28ff) and the visit of the Magi—our Gospel reading today (Mt 2:1-12). There are three attitudes towards the epiphany illustrated in the Gospel reading: the enthusiasm of the magi, the indifference of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the fear of Herod. Let us focus on the first two attitudes for two reasons. First, the Evangelist Matthew builds his mission discourse on the juxtaposition of the attitude of the magi and that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Second, the magi’s attitude can serve as our model in doing mission and that of the scribes and the Pharisees as the pitfall that we must avoid.
The magi are wise men from the east (Persia or the present-day Iran) representing the foreigners or the Gentiles. Upon seeing the star that signals the arrival of the Messiah, they set out to go to Jerusalem—a journey of about a thousand kilometers—to pay homage to the Lord. The scribes and the Pharisees, on the other hand, represent the wise men of Judaism—the experts on the Law of Moses. They know exactly where the birth of the child is to take place—in Bethlehem of Judea as prophesied in Micah (2:6). But they do nothing despite the fact that the journey they have to make from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is no more than nine kilometers.
The First Evangelist incorporates these contrasting attitudes in the plot of the Gospel’s mission discourse. At the outset, he underscores that the Jewish people are the primary recipient of the Good News that Jesus preaches. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles… but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-6). But the Jews remain indifferent to Jesus’ message in contrast with the enthusiasm shown by the Gentiles. Thus at the end of the Gospel, the Matthean Jesus commissions his disciples to go beyond Jewish territories. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:19).
How then can the magi portrayed in today’s Gospel inspire our way of doing mission? Why then should we avoid the attitude of the scribes and the Pharisees? Both of them know something about the birth of the Messiah. While the scribes and the Pharisees know exactly that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the magi get only a clue from the star and from Herod who has consulted the scribes and the Pharisees. Their significant difference, however, lies on the fact that while the scribes and the Pharisees take no action, the magi journey from a faraway land and venture into the unknown in order to pay reverence to the Lord. The scribes and the Pharisees’ knowledge of the divine is confined to the intellect, but the magi’s is rooted in experience. The former know about the Lord from the books, i.e., from the Jewish scriptures, but the latter have seen, felt, and heard the Lord. So real and deep is their experience of God that they return home having been profoundly transformed as symbolized by their taking of another road on their way back home (2:12).
Once we encounter the Lord the way the magi do, we shall become more effective evangelizers or missionaries. The Lord reveals himself to us in many ways, but he invites us especially to experience his presence in our needy neighbors. Toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46), Jesus shows us how he will make us account for our life. He will ask us whether we have given him food when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, and visited him when he was in prison by doing the same to the least of our brothers and sisters. Hopefully at the time of judgment, the Lord will NOT tell us, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41), for I reveal myself in those who are hungry, thirsty, and in prison, but you simply flaunt your perception of me by discussing in a scholarly way my hunger, my thirst and my being in prison. (Lazaro Ervite, OSA)