This coming Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. In yesterday’s post we noted the difference between Eastern and Western Christianity’s celebration of the solemnity. In today’s post we will set a little context for the gospel reading and what seems to be Matthew’s narrative intent in unfolding the story of Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew opens by placing Jesus in the line of ancestors from Abraham to Joseph: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). Where Luke provides us with the familiar accounts of the Nativity, Matthew simply says, as the first chapter ends, “she bore a son, and he [Joseph] named him Jesus.” (Mt 1:24)
The 2nd chapter of Matthew has four episodes, each revolving around a place name: Bethlehem, Egypt, Ramah, and Nazareth. The four scenes in the chapter explain how Jesus the Son of David was born in Bethlehem, a reference to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents linked to Ramah, how he was taken to Egypt in order to avoid the threat of death, why he did not return to Bethlehem, and how Nazareth came to be his home. Each episode includes an Old Testament quotation that contains the name of a place. This appeal to the Old Testament indicates that the Messiah’s itinerary was guided by the will of God.
With Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem established late in the reign of King Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.), the first episode introduces wise men from the East who possess astronomical and astrological knowledge. There is no shortage of speculation of what might have been the astronomical phenomena observed. Efforts at identifying the star should not divert attention from the more central concerns of the passage. The threefold occurrence of “do him homage” in verses 2, 8, 11 expresses the basic theme, and the contrast between the Magi and Herod.
This story, peculiar to Matthew, underlines several themes in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus the Messiah. It makes explicit reference to the detailed fulfillment of Scripture, in his place of birth (vv. 5–6), as well as alluding to another Messianic passage (Num. 24:17: “A star shall advance from Jacob”). It presents Jesus as the true ‘king of the Jews’ (v. 2) in contrast with the unworthy king Herod. It begins to draw a parallel between Moses and Jesus (in the escape and return from Egypt) which will be further developed in the rest of the chapter. And it shows Jesus as the Messiah of all nations, opposed by the leader of the Jewish nation but recognized as the fulfillment of the hopes of the Gentiles.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem – just as the prophets said; Jesus truly is Son of David (cf 1:1). The royal note runs throughout the story. Not only from the birthplace, but also the encounter with dignitaries in the person of King Herod the Great (considered an interloper king) and the magi (not actually kings at all). The contrasts also percolate with the narrative: to the true King of Israel, born in Bethlehem, come the foreign magi bearing gifts due royalty. This action echoes the Queen of Sheba coming to see David’s son Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-10) as well as text of the future Messiah (Ps 72 and Isa 60). It also points to the foreign prophet Balaam (Num 23) speaking of the “star’s rising in the east.”
Matthew 1 and its genealogy move in continuity with the OT story. It is here in Matthew 2 that the story is located as a present fulfillment in the world of the first century reader/listener. It is a merging of biblical worlds in which the promises of God to Israel are fulfilled. It is also a merging of other worlds. It is here that the gentile world begins to come to pay homage to the King of Kings – it is now that God “appears” to them.
This text is the traditional gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany. In Greek epiphaneia derives from the verb “to appear” and means “appearance”, “manifestation”. In classical Greek it was used for the appearance or manifestation of gods. In Jewish texts (LXX) the word occurs for manifestation of the God of Israel (2 Macc.15:27). In the New Testament the word is not used concerning the birth of Christ or visit of the Magi, but is used to refer once to the revealing of Christ after the resurrection, and five times to refer to the Second Coming.
The traditional use of this text underscores the truth that Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world and quietly sets the stage for the resurrected Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Mt 28:19) to the whole world.
Image credit: The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones (1904) | Public Domain