ColumnsSunday’s Word

The mystery revealed to the Gentiles

January 5, 2020


Is 60:1-6

Rise us, Jerualem! Your light has come.

Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13

All kings shall pay him homage

Eph 3:2-3, 5-6

The mystery revealed to the Gentiles

Mt 1:1-12

The coming of the Magi 010520.cfm


These classic readings of Epiphany are the same every year. Alternatives are almost unimaginable. But let’s look at what makes them so apt.

The key to the whole is the Gospel reading from Matthew. The famous story of the coming of the Magi jumpstarts the action in the larger gospel story, as the arrival of this foreigners in Jerusalem produce reactions that echo down through the narrative. The family need to depart, but cannot return to Jerusalem, and so divert to a northern town in Galilee called Nazareth. When Jesus reaches adulthood, he begins his long return to Judea and its capital. In this way, the story of the Magi is essential to Matthew’s larger picture.

The episode itself has overtones of the stories of Solomon. In particular we are reminded of the visit of Queen of Sheba, bringing gifts for the wise king (1 Kings 10:10). One gift, the myrrh, alludes to the Song of Songs, often called the Song of Solomon (Song 4:6, 14; 5:1, 5, 13). Here the Queen of Sheba represents all those who traveled to Jerusalem to honor Solomon. The theme, of course, is his commanding wisdom. The gift of spices bring to mind the Spice Road along the west coast of the Arabian peninsula, up from Sheba — today’s Yemen. No doubt many of the spices came originally from India, and were then shipped to Arabia by boat.

Another aspect of Matthew’s Magi story is found in the reference to the coming of nations to Jerusalem. The passage from Isaiah 60 is a powerful expression of that hope. It is probably itself alluding to the earlier passage of Isaiah 2:1-5, imagining the nation’s coming to Mount Zion for instruction, when “they will beat their swords into plowshares” and study war no more.

The passage from Isaiah 60 builds on this, but it carries its own powerful imagery. The opening scene is of a world in darkness except for the Holy City, like a beacon in the darkness, alone in the light. A rustling is heard in the surrounding the darkness, and lo and behold, caravans are seen moving out of the dark into the light. A textual link to Matthew’s story indicates that he intends this association. It is found in the lines,

“And all from Sheba will come,

bearing gold and incense

and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

The response from Psalm 72 provides another Solomon connection. The psalm is a portrait of the authentic king, with Solomon as its imaginary prototype. Again, “gold from Sheba” comes into the picture (Ps 72:15). But there is another word link special to this psalm. In v. 11, we read, “May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.” The Greek word for “bow” is the same as that in the Magi story, rendered as “do him homage” in Matthew 2:2, 4, 11. It can also be translated as “worship.” Literally, it means something like “kiss the ground” before him.

A side note is that Matthew is referencing a Solomon-inspired psalm depicting the good king. And almost every verse contradicts Matthew’s picture of King Herod. He implied message is that Jesus is the authentic Son of David, and Herod is not. This will stir up the drama in the following story.

The reading from Ephesians is shrewdly chosen as well. It speaks of the mystery now revealed. In other Pauline letters this mystery is seen as the coming of the Christ, and the beginning of a new age of salvation history. In this letter, however, it says that mystery is, more specifically, the beginning of salvation for the Gentiles. Suitable for the “Gentile Christmas.”

For reflection: A so often, the poetry of the biblical passages carry much of the message.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.