Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12
Over the past four years, we’ve heard repeated ad nauseum:
- Make America great again!”
- “God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave!”
- American Exceptionalism.
- “U.S.A., U.S.A.!”
- “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
- “America’s the world’s indispensable nation.”
- Collin Kaepernick and others should stand for the national anthem.
Additionally (and poignantly on this Epiphany Sunday and its celebration of “Wisemen”) our “leaders” have decided to ignore the world’s best and wisest minds by rejecting climate science and its warning about the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.
None of this is new, of course. Hyper-patriotism and rejection of wisdom have been the order of the day for much longer than the duration of the Trump presidency.
And it has its religious dimension as well: it’s as if American Christians actually believe that God is somehow opposed to the order of creation that S/he allegedly authored. It is as if S/he loves Christians more than Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis, or Ethiopians. It’s as if God loves Christians more than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews.
Witness Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced and recently pardoned National Security Advisor. He once described Islam itself and its 1.7 billion followers as a “vicious cancer” that has to be excised. In Flynn’s little mind, the wisdom of that Great Religion is completely ignored.
Even “liberals” like comedian, Bill Maher, are not far behind Flynn in their vilification of Muslims.
Ignored in all of this is the fact that the famous “Three Wise Men” of Matthew’s well-known parable were probably the ancestors of Arabia’s Muslims. In any case, they had a much broader understanding of God and the cosmos than Yeshua’s own people. For sure, Judaea’s King Herod shared Flynn’s and Maher’s constricted views of their seekers’ mentality as dangerously malignant.
The message of today’s celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany contradicts everything I’ve just described – the hyper-patriotism, the rejection of science, the othering of foreigners, and any attempt to fit the divine into narrow religious categories. Today’s readings challenge Yeshua-followers to grow up – to transcend our blind ethnocentrism, expand our horizons, recognize the immensity of the Life Force some call “God,” and at last become citizens of the world.
Remember: the word “epiphany” means the appearance or manifestation of God – a revelation of who God really is. Accordingly, today’s feast recalls the time when wisemen from the East recognized in Yeshua the long-awaited manifestation of the Universal God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us clearly that God is not what ethnocentric believers expected or even wanted. S/he loves everyone equally, not just Jews, much less Americans.
That’s part of why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew was like the one worshipped by America-firsters. He loved and favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood.
So, Herod and Jerusalem were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn divine avatar. The astrologers claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.
Today’s selections from the prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three astronomers) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.
Matthew’s story says that Yeshua manifested such a God. Yeshua was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.
Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?
Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.
No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.
All of this is expressed in this Sunday’s readings. What follows are my “translations.” The originals can be found here.
Isaiah 60: 1-6 Yes, God’s revelation has enlightened you, Jerusalem! It has been like a bright sun piercing dark clouds. But know that same light has also graced Other nations Making their inhabitants your own brothers and sisters. Please, embrace that Disclosure of God’s immensity! The resulting collapse of national barriers Will enrich you beyond your wildest dreams As all the earth’s treasures are shared Among members of a Single Human Family. Psalm 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-13 Thankfully (though very gradually) The human race is coming to realize That there is but a single God Whose overriding concern is social justice As it affects the poor and oppressed. In fact, God’s will Is the redistribution of wealth Across fictitious boundaries. Ephesians 3: 2-3a,5-6 Jesus himself taught that lesson As if for the first time: All of us, Jews and Gentiles Are members of a single body. Living by that teaching Will bring God’s New Order where (He said) God reigns Instead of earth’s Caesars. Matthew 2: 1-12 Recognizing God’s immensity Manifested in the very cosmos, Arab astrologers Accepted Yeshua’s universal revelation Not only before his own people, But despite the plot of religious leaders To deny and annihilate Its Messenger. Ironically, Arabs were more open To God’s Self disclosure Than those who considered themselves God’s people! (Doesn’t the same seem true today?)
Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” cosmic consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening.
Both culture and immature beliefs prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s somehow related to infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at childish stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines centralized in today’s celebration of Epiphany.
Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.