The Church marks the first Sunday of this new year by celebrating the great feast of Epiphany. While it may be overshadowed in our contemporary society by the celebration of Christmas, Epiphany is directly related to Christmas and it ranks as one of the most important days of the Church year, recalling the revelation of the child Jesus to the magi. In other words, Epiphany marks the moment when the Good News of the messiah reached beyond the confines of Israel and began to make itself known among the nations, represented symbolically by the “magi from the east” (Matt 2:1).
To sound out the meaning of the Christ child’s debut to the Gentile nations we turn to the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah emphasizes the unique role of Israel, spoken of figuratively as “Jerusalem,” as God’s chosen people—they are the people through whom God’s salvation is to be shared with the whole world: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you” (Isa 60:3-4). The prophet reminds us that from of old the belief of the people of Israel had been that their messiah would also be a savior for all the peoples of the world.
Next, there is a strong note of unity between Jews and Gentiles in the second reading, taken from the Letter to the Ephesians. We read: “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, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5-6). We see the same sort of unity among peoples anticipated in Matthew’s account of the magi, as the nations are figuratively brought together in worship at the feet of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The Old Testament thus points toward the special place of Israel in God’s plan for salvation, yet it also anticipates, and Ephesians reiterates, that this special status of Israel was intended for the good of all God’s holy people. We might ask ourselves, why did God choose to work-out the world’s redemption by first “electing” one nation, Israel, to be the beacon for all others?
Looking a little bit earlier in the Book of Isaiah we find the beginnings of an answer as we read: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9). God has written the narrative of our redemption in a way that defies human logic, competitive as we are.
God demonstrates freedom in working out our salvation in a way that mystifies us yet brings grandeur and honor to all peoples through the selection of one unique people—Israel. We might not have done so ourselves, but the Lord’s freedom in acting so generously should be mirrored by our free choice to respond likewise and seek to build unity in the midst of our Church and our nation.
As we begin a new year let us keep in mind the themes of God’s gracious election of his holy people Israel and our unity in Christ in and through them. Remembering that “God’s ways are not our ways” we can move forward together in freedom, knowing that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.