An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, Year C, Matthew 2:1-12, January 6, 2012
I NO LONGER REMEMBER its exact details, but the story I read in high school goes something like this: in a German prison camp during the Second World War, some prisoners escaped. Since no one could tell where they were and how they were able to make their way outside, the German guards retaliated by picking up men at random to be hanged—unless the escapees returned. Since not a single one returned, these men were hanged. Among them was a boy. As he hanged from the gallows, someone asked: “Where is God?” There was silence among the onlookers. Much later, a voice was again heard: “Where is God?” Then a voice came: “There he is, hanging from the gallows.” That someone could recognize God in the boy who was hanging from the gallows brings to mind a theological observation that one notes from the story of the Magi.
In today’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12), we are told of civil and religious authorities—Herod and the experts of scriptures—who were caught unawares about the coming of the Messiah. On the one hand, Bethlehem was a village under Herod who should have known the place and its people. On the other, the religious authorities had the Scriptures which tells of the birth of the Messiah: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd me people Israel” (Matt 2:8). Indeed, it was the priests and scribes who furnished King Herod the information about the future ruler. And when Herod eventually knew about him, he rejected him, thinking the child would be a threat to his kingship. In sharp contrast, we are also told of Magi, astrologers who studied the stars, so much aware of the coming of the new King. To know him, the Magi did not have the Scriptures; they had only a miraculous star to tell them. And by means of the star, they were led to the house of Joseph. In this pericope, Matthew thus makes a contrast between astrologers from the east who accepted Jesus and the King and religious leaders of Israel who rejected him.
The Magi story is a part of the introduction to Matthew’s gospel, and functions as an overture to the whole Matthean account of Jesus’ life, ministry and death, in more or less the same way that the Prologue of John introduces the reader to the theology found in his gospel. In particular, the Magi story serves to prefigure what happened in the life and ministry of Jesus and the early Church. Looking back, we know that both the civil and religious authorities, whom Herod and the interpreters of the Scriptures represent, refused to recognize Jesus as the One sent by God. God chose them as his people, and gave them his Word—the Scriptures—so they could walk in his ways; but when the time came, they failed to recognize the Messiah. They were scandalously slow in coming to faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. In sharp contrast, the Gentiles, whom the Magi represent in today’s gospel, knew nothing about God except through what was available to them through the natural phenomena, like the star, and yet, when confronted with the Message, they believed in Jesus the Messiah. In other words, the story was recalled by the Matthean community to explain a phenomenon in the early Church: the early Christians saw the contrasting reactions of the Jews and Gentiles to the ministry of Jesus and the apostles: while the Israelites rejected him, the Gentiles accepted him. In the understanding of the Matthean community, this sheds light on why the majority of the members of the Church came from pagans, not from Israelites, even though Jesus was a Jew.
How explain the contrast? For Matthew, Herod and the religious authorities, even though they had the sacred tradition, failed to recognize the Messiah because of their unbelief; they closed their eyes to the revelation of God in the child. The Magi, on the other hand, had faith. They believed that God spoke to them through the miraculous star. They believed that in the ordinariness of the child born in Bethlehem, God was there. Hence, the feast of the Epiphany is really about God’s revelation, and our acceptance or rejection of that revelation. It is possible that people who are supposedly religious may fail to recognize the coming of God in their lives. It happens when they presume to know the working of God, and limit his action to what they have already learned in their theologies. They put limits to their faith. But God is a God of surprises! He reveals himself in ways that are unknown and ordinary, and that people do not expect. He can reveal himself in a helpless child at Christmas, a child no different in appearance from the children of a small, poor village like Bethlehem. And we can detect his presence even in the negative experiences of our lives, in powerlessness, helplessness and wretchedness, in much the same way that a Jewish prisoner of war in a German camp came to recognize him in the boy hanging on the gallows. What is important for us, of course, is to detect his presence, to recognize his revelation. And we can do it only with the eyes of faith.