The name of the month of January is derived from the ancient Roman god Janus, whose intercession was invoked for protection in times of transition and new beginnings—hence the month named for him begins the new year. In Catholic tradition, on September 19th, we honor a great bishop and martyr of the early Church in southern Italy, Saint Gennaro, whose name is a variation on Janus.
On the feast of the Epiphany, occurring at the start of the year, we have an opportunity to stand like Janus and look to the past as well as anticipate what the future holds. A deep theological theme drawn from the Gospels can be observed as we do this, one which flows naturally from the feast of Epiphany.
The theme is noticed when we remember that the Lectionary we use at mass has been carefully developed over centuries; in recent decades the Church has adopted a pattern in which the three “synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are read in sequential years. In the year just ended the Church listened each Sunday to readings from the Gospel of Luke, a Gospel known for its powerful missionary impulse and for being the Gospel most directed toward a Gentile audience. In the year we have now just begun the Church will hear each Sunday from the Gospel of Matthew, a book long recognized for its Jewish background, themes, language, and ethos.
Reflecting on Luke, and its companion book the Acts of the Apostles, we are reminded of the fundamental mission of the early Church to take the Good News of Christ beyond the confines of Israel, and of our own call to take the Gospel and the Kingdom of God “to the nations.” Saint Paul [reminds] us of this today in the second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, when he asserts: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). We should rejoice over this inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan for salvation since most Christians today are descended from the ancient Gentile peoples, and we are thus “coheirs” of Christ’s redemption.
The Gospel of Matthew, in a complimentary way, prompts us to recall the origins of Christianity with the Jewish people, and our inextricable bond with them. After all, when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they sought the child Jesus by asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). A few verses later the Gospel deepens our identification with the people of the covenant by citing the prophet Micah, who said of the town of Bethlehem: “from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Matt 2:5-6; Micah 5:1). We see then that Christ is already called the shepherd of the people of Israel before we come to know him as the Good Shepherd.
The Church’s way of reading the Gospels in a consistent cycle slowly imbues fundamental lessons in her members. The feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the Magi and the conversion of the Gentiles, is an especially appropriate moment to recall that as Catholics we have an obligation to look to the past with gratitude and acknowledge our common heritage with the children of Israel, and, like Janus—or his Christian counterpart, San Gennaro—to look ahead to the future as we take up the great commission to “go, and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19). My prayers are with you for a peaceful and joyful new year.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.