Saturday, January 2, 2010

Epiphany: Fulfilment, Conflict and Contrasting Images.

Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60: 1-6

Now that the excitement of the highly commercialized Christmas is over, let us consider one of the least recognized days of the Christian calendar - i.e. January 6 in which we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord.

The meaning and the purpose of Epiphany have been contested in many circles. Nonetheless, the generally accepted definition is that - Epiphany is a feast that celebrates the “shining forth” or revelation of God to humanity in human form. Just like Christmas, it offers a story of God’s new action in the world through the conception of Jesus Christ which is also the manifestation of God’s saving presence. The Epiphany, in a world dominated by sin and evil, reminds us of God’s purpose to restore creation to the original intentions of the creator.

As such, the Epiphany is a story of fulfilment. It brings forth good news which ushers in that which was promised through the prophets. The story as recorded in Matthew 2 locates the birth of Christ in Bethlehem as a fulfilment of a prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2. Matthew adds to the prophecy 2 Samuel 5:2 giving Bethlehem a geographic precision, prominence and relevance. Jews expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. The narrative of Jesus’ birth is thus located at the very center of God’s purpose which involves the formation of a people for whom God intends blessing and life.

The Epiphany also reveals that God’s purpose is constant and faithful. Those who recognize this and commit themselves to follow Christ, live in a blessed world because God is at work in it and God will bring to completion all that God has intended.

However, the Epiphany is also a constant reminder of the onslaught against God’s action. This onslaught started with Herod, a vassal king, together with the Jerusalem elite who made desperate attempts to thwart God’s work. Herod is believed to have been an Idumean (a non-Jew) appointed king of Judea by the Roman senate in 40 B.C. and was in full control by 37 B.C. Although he is positively remembered for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, a project he initiated in 19 B.C., Herod is also remembered for his ruthlessness and his murderous actions. He murdered his own wife and his three sons. He also killed his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, an uncle and the babies of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16.)

Herod’s actions ought to remind us that the birth of Christianity was a painful one. Mourning and wailing became a hallmark of the early Church as opposed to the ultra-modern image of a wealthy, kingly Church. Lamentation expresses pain, sorrow, and outrage. Having said this, however, the Epiphany highlights the fact that though Herod’s actions may have been brutal and painful, Herod did not have the final word. Epiphany brings with it a message of hope - God will liberate his own.

The final thing that Epiphany reminds us of is the contrasting understandings of Christ. As a result different, groups throughout Christian history appropriate different images of the Christ. Some of the contrasting images that Epiphany brings to the fore include:

In the emerging narrative, it is the Magi (gentiles) not the chief priests (aristocratic temple priests) or scribes (writing bureaucrats) who received the initial revelation of the “shining forth” even though the latter had the prophetic and historical facts of where the Messiah was to be born. Many Christians have interpreted the story of the Magi in the context of power and glory (Isaiah 60:1- 6.) They connect Bethlehem with Davidic kingly lineage – Hollywood style – Christendom. This interpretation's emphasis is on the Eschaton (one who comes as the King of kings, Lord of lords, Supreme Judge to judge and rule the world with all splendour and glory.) They see the three wise men as referring to three kings who brought wealth and worshipped the King of kings.

Yet in the Epiphany story there is another image: that of a child; of parents; of simplicity; of the unsung heroines – Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Tamar. Basically, Christ is born into a family not a palace. The humble, the suffering and the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized easily identify with this image. The Epiphany offers them hope and they see themselves as the people of God (Matthew 1:21; 4:23; 9:35.)

What message does the story of the Epiphany of our Lord brings to you?