On the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord the Church remembers at the beginning of each new year the fundamental missionary impulse that lies at her core: to take the good news to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus himself commanded her before his ascension: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). We hear an anticipation of this missionary sentiment today in the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah and in the responsorial Psalm: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you” (see Ps 72:10-11). Isaiah and the Psalmist reminded our forbearers that as the word of God’s redemptive mercy became known to the nations their homage would be brought to Israel, God’s chosen people.
In the second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul explains how a new and definitive page in the history of man’s salvation has been written: he teaches us that it is through Christ that the gentile nations come to share in Israel’s redemption: “It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs … in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:4-6). As surely as we see a development in salvation history in the reading from Ephesians, we note that another, sin-touched, change took place in history somewhat earlier: the Roman take-over of God’s chosen people, in the century preceding Christ’s birth. We hear some details about this event at Christmas, when the familiar story of the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is told: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1).
God’s ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8): the human-led historical change of the Romans operated through power and violence. God’s “change” in history operated by means of mercy, and love that gives of itself even when unrequited, even when seemingly unwelcome. The man-led “change” of events was a grasping attempt to control and enslave a nation (Israel); the divine movement of history described in Ephesians was a restoration of freedom and dignity to all the nations of the world. The historic change moved by the Romans brought about the imposition of suffering, while God’s mending of history bestowed redemptive meaning and hope upon all those who suffer.
This struggle between God’s desire to share with all the nations the gift of salvation first announced to Israel, and worldly power corrupted by sin, is seen in the gospel account of the infant Jesus, the Magi, and Herod—the Roman puppet king. The Magi seek the newborn king in order to recognize him as Lord by bestowing royal gifts upon him, and then they return home bearing, instead of earthly treasures, the even more precious good news of his birth and reign. Herod, as shrewd in his words as he was malignant in his intentions, does not want to share the joy of the birth of Christ; rather, he wants to snuff out the hope and the light which Christ brings because they are opposed to his own worldly power and the sin that lies at its root.
The magi made the wise choice of avoiding further entanglement with Herod and took to the road with the peace of Christ in their hearts, carrying it to their homelands. Herod, roiled inside by the knowledge that the Christ child’s birth heralded his own demise, sought to kill the infant and to stifle the liberation he would bring to all. As we celebrate the Epiphany today, let us remember the salvation promised first to the people of Israel in which we now share through Jesus Christ, and let us resolve to be modern-day missionaries of his grace, imitating the magi in their humility, their courage, and their evangelical zeal.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.