Epiphany: Matthew 2: 1-18

There will, at some point over the Christmas period, have been an article in a newspaper, or a feature on the radio, in which the veracity of the Biblical accounts is discussed, where learned experts are brought in to consider whether there really was a star over Bethlehem (a comet, maybe?), whether the Massacre of the Innocents really happened (no evidence) and so on.  Someone, at some point, will point out that the Magi, who appear in Matthew 2, were not kings and that there were not necessarily three of them, whatever the popular carol tells us.   And they will all have missed the main point that Matthew is trying to make in the opening chapters of his Gospel. 

Let’s try to put ourselves into the position of his original audience, in the closing decades of the first century, almost certainly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70).   Some will have been Jewish, many will have been Gentiles by birth.  All are trying to make sense of what they know of Jesus’ short period of ministry, his horrific death and the accounts of the resurrection that are so hard for mortal minds to grasp.  Matthew sets out to make that task easier but, in the process, making sure that Jesus’ ministry is understood in the context of Jewish tradition.

Matthew’s Gospel is peppered with references to the Old Testament that justify Jesus as the promised Messiah.  Astute readers may also see, in these first two chapters, parallels between the early life of Jesus and that of Moses (see Exodus 2: 1-10).   They will also see, in the genealogy that Matthew presents in Matthew 1: 1-17, Jesus’ credentials as a Jew, descended from David and, ultimately, from Abraham.   They would not have been particularly surprised that Matthew focussed on the male ancestors, rather than the females, but may have raised their eyebrows at the inclusion of four female names: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (the latter not named but implied in 1:5).   

A Jewish audience would have read this Gospel with a belief that they were, in some sense, the chosen race, and that the Messiah’s purpose would have been to restore Israel and this genealogy will have done little to challenge this.   A few, who knew the Hebrew Bible well might have noticed that two of the four women to be included were Gentile by birth (Rahab and Ruth) although, in truth, the Hebrew genotype was never as pure as the some would have liked to think.   But Matthew’s inclusion of these women is deliberate, gently preparing us for what comes next.

What aspect of the story of the Magi might have had the greatest impact on those early audiences?  The slightly troubling introduction of astrology into a Gospel?  The meaning of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that they brought?   The impact of their visit on Herod?    No, for an audience steeped in Jewish expectations of a Messiah, the biggest dramatic twist of this story is that the first people to recognise Jesus as the Messiah were Gentiles.   For a writer with Matthew’s agenda, that must have been a deliberate ploy.   Matthew, who was determined that the increasingly Gentile church recognised and respected its Jewish roots, also wants to make the point from the outset that Jesus’ message was for everyone, not just for the Jews.  From this point, Matthew accompanies us on a journey through Jesus’ adult ministry but ending with a final commission: “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Sprit (28: 19).  He ends where he began: emphasising the universal nature of Jesus’ ministry.   

The story of Epiphany is, in essence, a fable about equality, as opposed to exceptionalism, though it may be hard to see this through the patina of time.  Curiously, artistic depictions of three “kings” wearing sumptuous fabrics and bearing expensive gifs does the exact opposite of this but we need to reclaim this image: magi were the academics of their day, wearing the equivalent of faded tweed jackets with arm patches.   But that’s just the start: Mathew’s purpose was to challenge his readers and my purpose is to challenge mine.  Quakers might point to their Testimony of Equality as evidence that they have addressed this issue and, indeed, were often ahead of their time.  But equality should never just be a tick box exercise: it is an ongoing process and the absence of glaring injustice in the categories that society recognises – race, gender, sexuality – should not stop us looking for injustices to which we are still blind.  I’m writing this in expectation that it will be distributed by email and as a blog post but, as I typed, I asked myself how often we pause to think of those who have limited access to the internet, or who choose not to live life online.   It is easy to be preoccupied with Google groups, Zoom links, Facebook pages and what have you and forget those without easy access to these.  And, having identified this minority group, I wonder if there are other groups to whom I am still blind.  And what I should do about this?  Matthew’s introduction of the Magi so early in his Gospel was preparing the ground for telling us that everyone has a right to hear.  That’s an exhortation to us not to rest on Quakerly laurels but to look again at the corners of our society that we currently overlook

The Collect for Epiphany

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(from the Book of Common Prayer)

A Quaker Collect for Epiphany

In the spirit of those who looked out from where they were and saw new worlds waiting, let us turn our eyes inwards, searching our hearts for barriers that we hitherto had not seen.  Let those of us who look for new horizons not forget that others may stumble across hurdles we cannot see.

More about Epiphany here:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/dec/25/art-christmas-story-three-kings

Marcus Collins & John Dominic Crossan (2009).  The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth.  HarperCollins

Music for Epiphany

Ballard of the Brown King, cantata combining classical, jazz and calypso music by Margaret Bonds, pioneering Black composer (1913-1972)

Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, J.S. Bach

As With Gladness Men of Old (William Chatterton 1859)

Relevant passages in Faith and Practice

19:39; 19:40; 

Published by Martyn Kelly

Environmental consultant, specialising in studies of freshwater algae; writes about the unfashionable end of biodiversity in his blog Microscopes and Monsters

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