December 28, 2009

Epiphany of the Lord

By Brian Pizzalato *

First Reading – Is. 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm – Ps. 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Second Reading – Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6
Gospel Reading – Mt. 2:1-12
The Gospel reading for the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord has the familiar story about the visit of the Magi. There are two emphases in the account: the inclusion of the Gentiles in salvation; and Christ’s humanity and divinity.
The first emphasis is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the salvation of the Gentiles. Here the appearance of the Magi is significant.
God always intended to be the Father of all nations. It’s only as a result of sin that there begins to be a particular emphasis on a particular people. Beginning with Adam, God’s first human son, God wanted a special relationship with all of Adam’s progeny.
This is also the case with Abram/Abraham. God’s plan is for all nations to come into his covenant family. God even changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means exalted father, “For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you…” Gn 17:5b-6). The Lord also says, “I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply you descendents as stars of heaven…and by your descendents shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves…” (Gn 22:16a, 17, 18).
As well, God, through the prophets, promises to gather the nations into the covenant family of God. The Old Testament reading for this Sunday tells us as much.
Isaiah tells us that the splendor of Jerusalem will be that “nations shall walk by your light…all those from Sheba will come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60:3, 6b). We see the fulfillment of this beginning with the visit of the Magi. Some of the first visitors and worshipers of Christ are Gentiles.
We are told that the Magi are from the east. More than likely they were from Persia. The fact that they are from the east is significant. Typically in the Old Testament, the east is associated with being away from the presence of the Lord. For example, after Cain kills Abel “Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gn 4:16).
Therefore, the Gentiles who are far from God are brought into the presence of the Lord through the guidance of the star.
The significance of the star can also not be underestimated. It also helps explain the murderous reaction of Herod when he decrees the slaughter of all the male children (two years old and younger) in the region of Bethlehem (cf. 2:16-18).
As far back as the book of Numbers we have King Balak of Moab commanding the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the people of God before they enter the Promised Land. On three occasions Balaam goes out to curse them, but can only pronounce a blessing. He goes out a fourth time and prophecies about what will happen in latter days. He says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Nm 24:17a). A king will arise to rule.
We might ask why such a negative reaction from Herod? First of all, Herod is not an Israelite. He is an Edomite appointed by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to be king over the Jews. And if we listen to more of the prophecy of Balaam we realize why he reacts in such a way. Balaam goes on to say that the one with the scepter “shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed…” (Nm 24:17b-18a). Herod clearly does not wish to be dispossessed.

It is therefore not accidental that St. Paul would one day say to those in Ephesus, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were at one time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11a, 12-13). It is through Christ’s sacrificial death that the Gentiles have been brought into God’s covenant family.
The second emphasis we have from this Sunday’s Gospel reading is a stress on Jesus’ divinity and humanity.
We see a highlighting of Jesus’ divinity because the Magi come “to worship him” (Mt 2:2). Then when they meet the Lord, “they fell down and worshiped him” (Mt 2:11). In order to worship Jesus they lie down flat on their face on the floor to do so. This also fulfills our Responsorial Psalm for this Sunday which says, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (72:11).
Another thing that shows an emphasis on the divinity of Jesus is the gift of frankincense. Like we as Catholics do on occasion, incense is used in worshiping God. It symbolizes our prayers rising up to the Lord as a sweet smelling fragrance.
However, there is also a highlighting of Jesus’ humanity. The Magi come from far away looking for, and ready to worship, God. But the very fact that they travel so far to do this demonstrates that they were looking for a human king, the “king of the Jews” (2:2).
Something else which stresses his humanity is the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was used as burial oil. So these Gentiles come to worship a divine/human king who they expect will undergo death.

Through our God, Jesus Christ, who is also fully man, all are meant to enter into the covenant family of the God the Father. 

Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate, Diocese of Duluth and is a faculty member of the Philosophy department of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England.

Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on

Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.

Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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