Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
RCL – Epiphany B – Tuesday 06 January 2009
Lord Jesus, help us to know of your ever-guiding presence in this year that begins. May we draw strength and wisdom from your ministry to us. May we selflessly and willingly serve the common good. Your Kingdom is close at hand. Let us be instruments of its revelation.
In Advent, we remembered and we paid attention to our longing for the Love of God and our yearning for God’s Kingdom.
In Christmastide, we rejoiced in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is at hand; we gave thanks for God made manifest in the person of Jesus; we sang our hope that God will be made manifest once again, for all and for ever, at a time of God’s choosing.
In-between those two mileposts of salvation history, we live in Epiphany. Two millennia ago, in Israel, God became incarnate in the person of Jesus and loved us to death. At a future time known of God only, God will be manifest to all, everywhere, and forever. The Love of God will be our permanent address. The Kingdom will be complete and irrefutable.
We live in Epiphany, the revelation of Emmanuel, of God amongst us. Hopefully, we know that our God is here now; in the grandiose and in the mundane, when we believe it and when we don’t’, when we see it and when we don’t, when we pray passionately or when we remain listless in the Presence.
The Feast of the Epiphany tells a story of how God is made manifest to all. I like to think there are two Epiphany stories; that of Luke, with the lowly shepherds, the farm animals and the heavenly host witnessing what is occurring; and that of Matthew, with the wise foreigners recognizing what is occurring in the world.
Both stories tell of a truth that became known and irrefutably present to the Jesus movement after his resurrection. That truth was, and is, that Jesus offers a new covenant with God to people of all walks of life, of all nations and at all times.
Matthew chose to illustrate that truth by the pilgrimage of wise men from the East to Jesus’ birthplace. In my understanding, Matthew’s story is already a legendary treatment of Jesus’ arrival in the world. Luke has another.
A legend, I remind ourselves, is a story handed down from the past and believed true although not verifiable. In another meaning of the word, “legend” is an explanatory list of the symbols on a map or chart.
Both Matthew and Luke tell a story many of us believe is true in the sense that it unveils a truth beyond observable reality. Both stories offer us a series of symbols to read the map of the life of Jesus, son of God.
One such symbol in both stories is the universality of Jesus’ relevance. Jesus came for all, Jews and Gentiles, Heaven and Earth, Rich and Poor, Meek and Famous. In Jesus, there is no in-crowd, there are no outsiders.
It is Matthew’s legend however that most did catch imaginations through the centuries and on which layers upon layers of added details were lavished. Those added details usually tell us more about those, who like ourselves today, tried to make sense of the story and who made it make sense in accord with their understanding of the world.
As any good legendary treatment of a truth, Matthew’s story draws from reality, mixes it up with symbols and expands it to make the true deep meaning of the story more obvious. Let us explore a few examples of that together.
Herod was a paranoid angry old man. His legitimacy as a Jewish leader was always in question despite his lavish re-building of the Temple at Jerusalem. He was always concerned that someone was after his throne. This led him to assassinate a wife of his, her mother, and no less than three of his own sons. Some accounts have him committing these crimes with his own hands. He also planned a failed mass murder of elites to be executed at his own death.
So it is in character that Herod would inquire about rumors of a legitimate King of the Jews being born somewhere. And that, in doubt, he would prefer to wipe out a generation of babies in the village of Bethlehem, in order to ensure the disappearance of a challenger.
A point that the story makes here is the duplicity and lack of legitimacy of Israel’s officialdom.
On another note, Hebrew scripture is used to project kingship on the wise men. And the three gifts mentioned in the story lead some to deduce the visit of three wise men, or kings (one per gift).
Is it possible to imagine a caravan of dozens of wise men, and maybe a few female soothsayers, descending on Bethlehem with more presents than can be enumerated? Matthew does not number or name the wise men. He seems to indicate that they all come from the same country.
Anyway, since childhood, I have often wondered why not a single of men, considered wise, thought of offering the young parents warm blankets, changes of swaddling clothes or a hot coals space heater. This might be the strongest indication there were no women in the lot… As a Belgian Walloon poet and humorist said in one of his sketches, the Holy Mother must have thought to herself the wise men hadn’t browsed the shops very long to come up with gifts like those…
So the three gifts mentioned are part of the legendary treatment of truth: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Again, earlier Hebrew scripture refers to gold and frankincense, celebratory gifts, worthy gifts for a temple of worship. Myrrh is Matthew’s addition. These three gifts, in addition to leading to the idea of three wise men, also gave rise to various allegorical interpretations (kingship, priesthood, death). These presents then, are also an explanatory list of the symbols on the map or chart of Jesus’ destiny.
Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett (of NPR fame), offered the fruit of her own lectio on these symbols. She researched what these three substances were used for and represented in Middle Eastern life then and now. I love her idea of gifts of character being represented by: gold for generosity, frankincense for serenity, and myrrh for healing, as in renewal of spirit.
Medieval European interpretation further characterized the three kings by giving them names, ages, origins and assigning them a gift each. This way, they neatly represent the three ages of man and the three parts of the world then known to humankind (Asia, Europe and Africa).
Their initials CMB for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar even become the basis of a house blessing at the beginning of a new year: “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” – “may Christ bless this house”. The letters are written on the lintels of doors in between two numbers for the century and two numbers for the year.
I indulged myself in taking a piece of chalk to the lintels of the door into our enclosure from our parking lot and the door to my own cell (20 C+M+B 09).
The Epiphany viewed as a party of Kings (including the baby King of Kings)
Attribution unknown - can you help?
Attribution unknown - can you help?
*****When tradition and legend snowball in such a wealth of meaning and practice, you know some deep truth is tugging at the human heart through it all. And my exploration today only covers a few ideas that come with Epiphany. The Epiphany narratives may not be historically verifiable. But they point to an all-pervasive presence of the godly in our experience and they point us in the direction of Jesus.
That’s more than enough to make Matthew’s treatment of the Epiphany worthy of study and prayer. God is amongst us, all of us; the Kingdom of God is close at hand; now let us take that light into the world in our actions and words.
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you for Matthew’s account of your coming into the world as one of us. We thank you for the veracity of the Gospels in their variety of vision on the true nature of your incarnate presence among us. Help us not only to listen with the ear of our heart, as our Father Benedict guides us to do, but also to look with the eye of our soul when we search for your face in our everyday life. May we live in Epiphany every day until the day the veil is rent for good and we behold You in all your glory.