Epiphany

03 January 2019

Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.10-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

 

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OUR Old Testament reading prophesies a dramatic reversal in the status of Israel and its surrounding nations. In the Messianic age, the kings of the nations will not come to Jerusalem to take plunder but to offer tribute. As Walter Brueggemann explains, “This vision is a hugely important inversion of geopolitics. For as long as anyone can remember, Israel had paid imperial tribute to others — the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians — all money going out” (Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66). Now Israel will be the source of security and blessing, and will in turn receive “the abundance of the sea” and “the wealth of the nations”.

This prophecy finds its fulfilment in the Gospel. This is first revealed as the Magi come with their gifts in search of the Christ-child. St Matthew tells us that, when they arrive in the city, “all Jerusalem” is “frightened”. As St John Chrysostom observes, one might have thought that this occupied city would delight at news of the birth of its long-promised deliverer. Jerusalem, however, “remained troubled by the same idolatrous affections that had previously caused them to turn from God precisely when God was pouring out his greatest benefits on them”.

The Magi bring the prophesied gifts, but they also bear myrrh, foretelling Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. This reveals that the Gospel fulfils the Isaiahan prophecy in its entirety — not only the words of Isaiah 60, but also the mysterious prophecy of the Servant Songs, a few chapters earlier.

Kings and emperors were given tribute in exchange for protection and security: a constrained exchange of material wealth for military force, in which the greater benefit was received by the one with the greater power. With the coming of Christ, this flow is wholly transformed. The tributes brought by the Gentile kings symbolise the greater gift being given by Israel to the nations in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry.

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In the words of our epistle, “the boundless riches of Christ” are now poured on Gentile as well as Jew, in a community marked by a revolutionary form of mutuality. They become “fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ through the gospel”.

There is a corporate (and indeed cosmic) dimension to the blessing that has dawned in Christ. The child who is adored in Bethlehem will not only die and rise again, but, when he returns to heaven, he will draw all people into his Body, the Church. “The text quickly leads the hearer away from a historical focus to consider the whole cosmos” (Margaret MacDonald, Sacra Pagina: Colossians and Ephesians).

As the body and bride of Christ, the Church is therefore not a passing institution. Her earthly life and worship anticipate her final consummation at the “marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.6-9). The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first or second century, expresses this insight in a striking formula: “The world was made for the sake of the Church.”

The whole created order was brought into being through the loving purposes of God so that it might be drawn into the Church, whose union with Christ draws it, in turn, into the life and love of the Triune God. The activities of the Church in history anticipate and bear witness to this eternal destiny. Her ultimate vocation is not the incremental improvement of the world around her, but the union of that world with God. The transformation of lives and communities through her earthly ministry is a sign and foretaste of that consummation.

It is when the Church forgets the magnificence of her calling — to be the Body through which all creation is drawn into the life and love of the Creator — that she falls into pettiness and pomposity, modelling herself on the power structures of this passing world.

The Epiphany recalls the Church to the greatness and the humility of her vocation, by reminding us of the greatness and humility of her head. His kingship is that of a vulnerable and wordless infant; an infant who will grow up to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. It is in this way that Christ manifests his glory to the Gentiles. He does not come, like so many earthly kings, to dominate and extort; rather, he pours on the nations the gift of his own life, the sacrifice through which all may share the life of God.

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