“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
This exuberant first reading for Epiphany, comes from Isaiah and was written at the end of the Babylonian exile, after King Cyrus of Persia had defeated the Babylonians and freed the Israelites in 538 BCE so they could return to Jerusalem. Isaiah foresaw a glorious future authored by the Lord. The first section describes the dawning of a new relationship of God with his people.
Isaiah then spells out the implications of the Lord’s presence, as the reading continues.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
“Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
… the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
This passage celebrated freedom from captivity, it spoke of a luminous time when Judah and specifically Jerusalem …. whose people had been punished with exile for abandoning God’s ways…. would enter a renewed relationship with God and become the spiritual and cultural centre of the world.
When Matthew composed his gospel, he saw in this passage a prophecy of the star of Bethlehem, the Magi, but more significantly, the dawning of a new relationship with God in the person of Jesus.
Matthew’s gospel for the Epiphany begins:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The Magi were probably astrologers, who studied the stars and who interpreted their movements as significant for humanity. The English word Magi is a contraction of magicians, tricksters who worked with sleight of hand. They were frequently foils for prophets in the Old Testament (see Daniel). They were a strange group for Matthew to feature in his gospel… except that they emphasize that God’s invitation was for everyone, Gentile and Jew.
The star when it rose could have been the conjunction of planets, a supernova or a comet. Whatever the Magi saw, their interpretation was correct; something cosmic had happened.
Their knowledge of the King of the Jews could have arisen from studying the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, known as the Septuagint which had been available for two hundred years. Their bumbling request for information from Herod shows that they did not know about him and that they were insensitive to the implicit challenge created by their request for information about an alternative King of the Jews.
When King Herod heard this (about the King of the Jews) he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod was paranoid and the news of this potential threat by a new king would have upset him as well as those around him who feared his murderous temper.
When he called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet (Micah 5:2) has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Matthew wrote to a Jewish-Christian audience and frequently linked events in Jesus’ life to prophecies of the Hebrew scripture, to underline Jesus’ status as the one who was promised. His citation of Micah was one of many such references.
Matthew used this scriptural reference as well as the arrival of the Magi to emphasize that Christ came for all of humanity, not just the Jews. From the earliest days of his life, gentiles had come to worship him.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Herod’s lie about his reason for asking them to report to him is almost comedic in its villainy, except that he subsequently followed through with a sweeping cruelty. Matt 2:16 tells us that When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
The gospel for Epiphany continues: After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Magi may have wondered at the poor surroundings of this “king”, but they responded with joy and knelt in homage. They were certain about the location and the child.
Mary and Joseph appear to have welcomed the strangers… probably after a few moments of astonishment. After all, Jesus’ birth had generated other astounding situations. Between the annunciation (Luke 1:26-35), the greeting by Elizabeth (Luke 1:42-45) Joseph’s dream to take Mary as his wife when he had planned to put her aside (Matt. 1:20), the shepherds' story about how they had learned of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:15-20), Simeon and Anna’s greeting of the infant Jesus at the presentation in the temple (Luke 2:25-38)… Mary and Joseph had already had some startling encounters around Jesus’ birth. This homage of the Magi was only the most recent such event.