Showings: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany
Epiphany (Year C): Matthew 2:1-12
1) This Sunday is Epiphany, which means "showing forth." Historically, Epiphany has included the celebration of three things, all of which are considered key moments - key “firsts,” we might say - in which Jesus’ true identity shows forth: the visit of the Magi (this week’s reading from Matthew); Jesus’ baptism; and Jesus’ first canonical miracle of turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana.
2) One of Matthew’s major themes is that God’s salvation extends beyond Jesus’ immediate Jewish community to include the Gentiles as well (in other words, to be open to all). The visit of the Magi foreshadows this broad message of inclusion, and together with the great commission in Matthew 28:16-20, it frames the story of Jesus’ life. Within these two bookends, Matthew's message is clear: not only supposed insiders, but also supposed outsiders are within the great circle of divine love.
1) Despite the well-known carol, in Matthew’s story of the Magi there are only two kings: King Herod and Jesus, the rumored “king of the Jews.” The Magi are not kings but rather “wise ones,” scholars who study the stars for signs and omens. So they aren’t “kings” - and they aren't necessarily “three” either. The story mentions three gifts, but doesn’t specify the number of people who carry them. Those gifts themselves are telling, however: gold for a great king, frankincense for a great priest, and myrrh for one who will suffer and die (in Mark, for instance, Jesus is given wine mixed with myrrh at the crucifixion (Mark 15:23); and in John, Nicodemus and Joseph wrap Jesus’ dead body in myrrh and aloes (John 19:39)). The cross is foreshadowed in this story in at least three ways: in the myrrh; in the fact that not only King Herod but “all Jerusalem” are frightened at the Magi’s news of the child’s birth; and in Herod’s murderous plot, masked as adoration. From the very beginning, the powers that be consider Jesus a threat, and set out to destroy him.
2) Not a tale of three kings, then, but rather a tale of two kings, one utterly vulnerable and yet protected by divine care, the other apparently powerful and yet actually insecure, frightened, and desperate. The rest of the story - often left aside by the typical practice of ending with verse 12 (“left for their own country by another road”) - is that the holy family, too, has to flee, and that King Herod is furious. The slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) isn’t an incidental element in the narrative; it’s the culmination of Herod’s insecurity and rage, an exposure of the violence intrinsic to tyranny, and an echo of Pharaoh (and therefore of the Exodus). In the infant Jesus, the Prince of Peace, a vulnerable refugee smuggled into Egypt - God has a very different form of monarchy in mind.
3) Many Christmas cards feature a bright star hovering over the holy family, but Matthew’s story suggests otherwise. Only the Magi notice the star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night, and King Herod’s dependence on the visitors to lead him to the child indicates that neither he nor his assassins could follow the star without help. Matthew’s theme here is the hiddenness of Christ, the small and often unnoticed ways God enters our lives in epiphanies large and small. This hiddenness is a kind of divine signature: instead of "showing forth" conspicuously at the Temple, God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a backwater town. And instead of "showing forth" to a crowd of supposed insiders, God will be noticed first by strangers from a foreign land, “wise ones from the East.” God does indeed show forth - but in a hidden way.
1) This may be the perfect week to reflect on “epiphanies,” the ways (great and small) God shows forth in our lives, and the ways (great and small) we notice or overlook those showings.
2) What are the marks, the signatures of divine presence? Wonders sometimes subtle, sometime hidden, often unnoticed. And what are the modes of attention that may help our eyes to see? First, careful, patient study and contemplation of ancient stories and small wonders, like the Magi studying their charts. Second, staying alert to contrast: part of how Jesus “shines forth” is through contrast with the imperious, domineering desperation of the King Herods of the world. And third, openness to following Jesus on his pathway of vulnerability, humility, and grace, walking with supposed outsiders and other questionable characters (like us!).
3) This might also be a great week for reflecting on how Christians should conceive and relate to people from other religious traditions, or from no religion at all. Here at the very heart of the Christmas narrative, and at the outset of a new year, is a story that emphasizes how God’s love and “showing forth” extend beyond conventionally understood religious boundaries. God comes to an ordinary, humble family - and is recognized by wise ones from afar, alleged outsiders who can and do help show us the way!