January 6th 2013 Epiphany (c)
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Dialogue: Epiphany, ongoing revelation of the divine mystery. The new evangelization
This brief reading from the book of Isaiah is chosen to go with today’s Gospel, as it speaks of people on camels bringing gold and incense to Jerusalem and singing the praise of the Lord. I believe it helps us better to understand the narrative of the visit of the Magi, and of the message of this visit for our own day, if we consider the first reading in its original context in the Book of Isaiah. Israel had been severely punished by God for her infidelity, punished by exile in Babylon where she had little hope of any future at all. The pride of her eyes, the Temple and the Holy City, had been totally destroyed. This was in 585 B.C. Then about 545 the prophet we now know as Second Isaiah arrived on the scene to give her a vision of a glorious future, with a triumphal return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Israel was constantly buoyed up by prophetic vision. But the reality was far removed from that promised by the vision. The original vision of Second Isaiah was occasionally renewed, one such renewal being in the chapter from which this brief reading is taken. The surrounding pagan world is envisioned as in darkness, night covering the earth. The present reading is addressed by the prophet to Jerusalem. The glory of the Lord will shine on her and she will be a light to the pagan nations. The wealth of nations is represented as flowing to Jerusalem from the sea in the west and Arab countries to the east.. Camels in throngs are seen as advancing to her, from places to the east and south-east of Jerusalem, some being mentioned by name: Midian, Epha, Sheba.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 71). All nations shall come and fall prostrate before you, O Lord.
Second Reading (Colossians 3:2-a, 5-6).
This reading is very much about “knowledge of the mystery”. This presents an occasion for reflecting on what is meant by the word “mystery” in the Gospels, in Paul, even in the Church’s liturgy and our understanding of the Church. A mystery, or secret, in this tradition is a technical term for a truth, a divine plan, a secret known to God but made known to mortals only through revelation. What the contents of the mystery, the secret, are can vary from one occasion to another. There are examples of such mysteries already in the Old Testament, in the Book of Daniel. The great revelation of the divine mystery, of course, was in Christ, made known by him to the apostles. Jesus told them: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries (often now translated as “secrets”) of the kingdom of heaven, but to others it has not been given” (Matthew 23:11). Then a little later Jesus continues: “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17). In a sense Jesus and his activity was this mystery revealed. But revelation of the mystery, of the divine plan for humanity, was to move a step further after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and through the revelation of God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul was chosen by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. This for Paul meant fearlessly preaching that salvation was through faith in Jesus, but by observance of the Jewish law. He fought fearlessly for the inclusion of Jew and Gentile in the Church as equals, equals through faith in Christ. This seems to have become a reality by the time the letter to the Ephesians was written. The revelation of the divine plan in Christ has taken a great step forward, revealed as this text says through the holy apostles and prophets. The prophets intended here are New Testament prophets (hence mention of them after the apostles), persons who had a deeper insight into God’s plan of salvation.
One may note here that the term “mystery” has continued to be used by the Church, and its use calls for reflection. In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Vatican II Council heads its first chapter as “The mystery of the Church”, where a note to an English translation reminds us that the term “mystery” indicates that the Church, as the divine reality inserted into history, cannot be fully captured by human thought or language. Pope Paul VI has reminded us of this in his opening allocution at the second session of the Council (September 29, 1963): “The Church is a mystery. It is a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. It lies, therefore, within the very nature of the Church to be always open to new and greater exploration”. This hidden presence of God is also present in the liturgy, in the Eucharist (Mass) and other sacraments, and the term “mystery/mysteries” occurs rather frequently in the revised English translation of the Missal.
Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12).
With regard to this reading, what is important is that we bear in mind what Matthew’s purpose appears to be, not how the reading fits into history. King Herod died early in the year 4 B.C. He was known for his cruelty, and for putting any possible contender to his throne to death. There were then various views about the origins and the nature of the awaited son of David in circulation. The learned chief priest and scribes would have known the prophecy of Micah 5:1-4, read and explained in this internet site as the first reading of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Herod’s intentions with regard to the new-born babe were quite clear. The Magi (wise men) are here presented in a positive light, not as astrologers. They come from the East (Persia, Babylon or Arabia) and are presented as representing the best wisdom of the Gentile world, its spiritual elite. With regard to the star and its movements, I believe that looking for an explanation from astronomy is not called for. It is Matthew’s way of saying that the Magi were guided by God, possibly Matthew’s way of saying an angel. The Magi represent the non-Jewish, Gentile, pagan world, that recognized the saviour of the world at his very birth. Matthew’s Gospel will end with the command of the risen Saviour to the Eleven apostles to preach the Gospel to all people (Matthew 28:16-20).
The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day
Dialogue Epiphany, ongoing revelation of the divine mystery, the new evangelization
God’s activity is an ongoing revelation of mystery. Isaiah’s first reading concerned a vision of Jerusalem, not of Christ. God’s work in Christ was a mystery hidden from the prophets. We may also note while this great vision of Isaiah chapter 60 gave courage in its time, it was not fulfilled in his day. Christian tradition referred the promises made to the Jerusalem, the Zion, of old to the Church, the New Jerusalem. But the vision has not been fulfilled in Christian history either. The Apocalypse of John (Apocalypse 21:22-27) looks forward to their fulfilment in the New Jerusalem come down from heaven at the end of time. A divine vision sustains, even when not immediately fulfilled. The Magi had a premonition of Christ’s future message to Gentiles. Mysteries of the kingdom revealed through Christ, and God’s plan for the non-Jewish world, were further made manifest after Christ in Paul’s ministry.
The epiphany, the divine revelation of God’s salvation for each generation, is ongoing. The Church needs to review and recast its message, as permitted by fidelity to it mission and as required. This it did in a big way in Vatican Council II 1963-1965, which rapid changes in the Church have many hark back to. But while these documents of Vatican II still inspire, the Church situation since 1965 7has changed dramatically, with clerical child sex abuse and the disconnect of the young from the Church. Today the Church is actively involved in a mission to bring the saving message of the Gospel to those alienated from the faith through disconnect, to the youth, to those who have fallen away from the practice of the faith. She is acutely aware that current faith problems do not arise just from abuses in the Church or bad pastoral practice. Many of them have to do with a prevailing secularism and an attempt to banish the faith and all things related with it from public discourse. There is also the fact that a number active in the media and comedy target Church teaching and practice. For some, abandonment of the faith means not just indifference but hostility.
In this atmosphere the Church is involved in a New Evangelization. To be effective the Church must first of all listen to the peoples’ voices and concerns. The “institutional” church is often accused of not listening. To remedy this the diocese of Killaloe has had “Listening sessions” and the results of these are available online at www.killaloediocese.ie. Other dioceses may do the same, or take the results of the Killaloe diocese as their model. The Archdiocese of Armagh has also done a consultation process to consider restructuring the diocese into Pastoral Areas. This is the year of faith, of the New Evangelization. Plans for this have been laid down. See the booklet: The New Evangelisation–Responding to the Challenge of Indifference, by Rino Fischella. United Kingdom: Gracewing, Euro 9.99.