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Leader comment: The Epiphany: remember the outsiders

by
05 January 2024

THE danger with the Epiphany is that it is too good a story. The mysterious Magi arrive in the night (unlike Rembrand in his depiction of it on our cover, most artists transpose the action to daylight to show off their visitors’ magnificent robes), present their meaningful gifts, and then disappear from the narrative for ever. They are the subject of carols, the most popular characters besides Mary in nativity plays, their number and names fixed by later legends, as was their promotion to royalty. This last element remains the greatest stumbling block to their being taken seriously. Depicted as kings, they serve to highlight the difference between established power structures and the helplessness that God chooses; but that is a minor message.

Their true purpose in St Matthew’s Gospel is to signal the otherness of Jesus’s ministry: he has come to preach the good news to the outcasts, and condemnation to the corrupt leaders of the Temple and the Palace. The Christ Child’s identity is known to the wise strangers, revealed to them through scriptural prophecies even before his birth. Their initial mistake, expecting the Christ to be found in Herod’s palace, serves to emphasise the Evangelist’s point. In contrast, the authorities in Jerusalem fail to recognise the God in their midst even when they have the benefit of Christ’s mature ministry, and have seen and heard “how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached” (St Luke 7.22). The world that Jesus came to redeem is the one governed by the corrupters of his Father’s temple. The people he has come to save are the ones living under the yoke of the religious enforcers of the law.

St Matthew expects little of secular rulers. They can be weak, fearful, even murderous, and are simply acting true to type. His focus, instead, is on the men who have been given the sacred task of revealing God to the Jewish people, and have failed. “Did ye never read in the scriptures . . ?” Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders at one point (21.42). The Epiphany, then, is a reminder to present-day religious leaders and priests that they do not have a monopoly on God’s message. God has no patience with those who have been entrusted with his message of love, forgiveness, and freedom, but, instead, bind his children in chains of their own making. God’s offer of love is universal, and, like new wine, cannot be contained in old bottles. Customs, traditions, rites, habits, duties — all have their part to play in comprehending the mysteries of God, but they are never more than a framework that sometimes supports, sometimes restricts. A wise Church will always be attentive to movements of the Spirit in unexpected people and places, and guard against complacency.

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