Returning Home by “Another Way” (Not Herod’s or the Priests’)
Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/010613.cfm
Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany. The word epiphany means the appearance or manifestation of God. Today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East traveled through Palestine seeking the long-awaited manifestation of God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. He and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us a great deal about that God. S/he’s not what small-minded believers expected or even wanted.
That’s why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking a manifestation of the universal God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew and loved was nationalistic favoring Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood. So the nationalists were “troubled” when the universalists came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king transcending boundaries of all kinds. The wise men claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, they realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God to everyone who would listen.
The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the wise men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. Recall what today’s reading said: This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three kings) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.
Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.
Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?
Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions too. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.
No, for Herod and his allies there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly ecumenical face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.
Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” universalist consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of nationalism, which makes us see the other and the other’s understanding of God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent us from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of nationalism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.