Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Epiphany, Year A, Matthew 2:1-12, January 2, 2011
In his biography of the Italian saint entitled St Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton writes of the reaction of the Bishop of Assisi to the poverty of St Francis who abandoned his family home and patrimony, making his home with the lepers: “The good bishop of Assisi expressed sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground.” Horrific though his poverty, his simple life, that attracted friends and enthusiasts; one by one, they attached themselves to him “because they shared his own passion for simplicity.” The first to be attracted to his lifestyle were a wealthy citizen named Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter, a canon from a neighboring church. Bernard gave up the comforts of the world and Peter a chair of spiritual authority. From then one, Francis attracted men from all over the known world, and his order changed the face of the Church. Writes Chesterton: Francis “was not only discovering the general lesson that his glory was not to be in overthrowing men in battle but in building up the positive and creative monuments of peace. He was truly building up something else, or beginning to build it up; something that has often enough fallen into ruin but has never been past rebuilding; a church that could always be built anew though it had rotted away to its first foundation-stone, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.”
This glimpse from the life of St Francis of Assisi points out to us one way by which the Church can evangelize and change the world, even as the saint evangelized and transformed the Church. That style of evangelizing is the theme of the 1st Reading (Isa 60:1-6) and the Gospel (Matt 2:1-12) today. To begin with, we are, of course, accustomed to the idea of evangelization in which missionaries as sent to non-Christian lands to preach the Gospel in obedience to the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). But the Gospel of Matthew knows a different strand of tradition that speaks of a different way of evangelizing the non-Christian world. And to appreciate this method, it may be helpful to recall the Gospel reading on Christmas Day (John 1:1-18), which, examined closely, teaches us about our calling. According to John, God took on the human flesh, dwelling with us so that we could become sharers of his life and love: “Any who did accept him he empowered to become children of God… Of his fullness we have all had a share—love following upon love” (John 1:12.16). For John, Christians who have become God’s adopted children or his sons form a community in which a new kind of relationship among the members regulates the community life. Having been chosen by God to be his children, they must make real in their community life the experience of his forgiving love poured on them at baptism. Love, which is the bond that binds all the members, creates wholeness and integrity within the individual believer and within the Christian community. All the members surrender themselves to Christ’s rule (Col 3:12-17). This is the kind of community that God calls Christians to form and the terminus of its evangelizing efforts; it is a community that shares the life and love of God.
But that calling is not limited to Christians. As St Paul could attest, all are called to be sharers of that kind of life: “God wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). “In Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, and sharers of the promise” Eph 3:6). For Paul, this is the mystery that God has revealed to his apostles and prophets through the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:5). But if others are co-heirs with Christians and Jews, then how are those outside Christianity to share in God’s promise? How can Christians make those who do not believe in Christ members of the community that now experiences a new form of relationship? Of course, Paul’s answer is through the preaching of the Gospel (Eph 3:6b). In other words, Christians must be sent to the non-Christian world and there engaged in evangelization. But the 1st Reading (Isa 60:1-6), together with the Gospel reading, provides us a different strand of tradition on the way by which others can come to the knowledge of the truth. For Isaiah, evangelization is not just about bringing the word of God to those who have not heard of it; it could also mean preaching by means of the life people lead as a community. For, according to Isaiah, the glory of the Lord must shine in the community; that experience of unity and love which the new people of Zion have with God and with the members of the community must be recognized by those outside: “Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shine upon you” (Isa 60:1).
In other words, non-Christians will eventually form part of the Christian community if this community reflects the glory and love of God; that is to say, if they recognize in it the experience of unity and love among Christians. In the 1st Reading, it is related that the dromedaries from Midian and Ephah and from Sheba stream toward Zion because of the light that shines (Isa 60:6). Here, the prophet envisions the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem following upon the rebuilding of the city. But in today’s liturgy, Christians who read Isaiah take Zion to mean the Christian community, which is the new Jerusalem. And non-Christian nations and people will stream toward it and be converted if this city gives out a light—which is the experience of unity and love displayed by its members. This is precisely the point of the Gospel reading. In the Gospel, Matthew speaks of a star. A Christian reading the text will readily associate the star with Balaam’s prophecy: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17) which was a Messianic text. But as Matthew narrates the story, it obviously refers to a heavenly phenomenon. If the Magi, who represent the Gentiles, were able to find Jesus, it was because they were attracted to the bright star; it guided them to the manger where Jesus lay. In other words, for the Gospel writer, non-Christians will find Jesus if they are first of all attracted to the light and life that the Christian community gives.
The Church then can even more effectively evangelize non-Christians if the community members will display in her life the unity and love she shares with God. This is not, of course, to play down the importance of sending missionaries abroad, but this has to be complemented with life witnessing. The role of the Christian community is to give light so people of various beliefs and persuasions will be attracted to it, even as the magi found Jesus because they were attracted to the star of Bethlehem. The effectiveness of this way of evangelization has been shown in history by the lives of many Christian communities, and it was clearly shown in the life of St Francis. As we noted above, the first to be attracted to the lifestyle of the saints were Bernard and Peter, and from that moment, the Franciscan movement continued to grow rapidly. With his lifestyle that would have been mistaken for that of a maniac, Francis had no need to ask people to join the movement. what happened was that people were flocking to him, because the lifestyle of the saint was no less an epiphany of God.