Sunday, January 06, 2013

Epiphany in the Prophets

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany, which in popular piety is connected with the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Christ child. This is very appropriate as the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus signifies the visible manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles, which is itself the proper object of this liturgical celebration.

Many things are prophesied of the Messiah in the Old Testament: the place of His birth, the miraculous signs He would perform, the fact and manner of His death, as well as His Resurrection and many notable truths that Christ would proclaim are foreshadowed in the prophets. Yet one of the most frequently mentioned characteristics of the Messiah in the Old Testament is the promise that He would inaugurate an era in which the Gentiles are enlightened with the truth of God's law and brought into the family of God. This full-inclusion of the Gentiles, the revelation of God to the nations, is what formally begins when the Wise Men acknowledge Christ as King and is what we celebrate at Epiphany.

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the Messianic age rectifies one of the major paradoxes of ancient Judaism: that, despite the Old Testament's clear teaching that God is the God of the entire earth and that there is no other beside Him, He is somehow nevertheless only the national God of Israel specifically. If "heaven is His throne and earth is His footstool" (Isa. 66:1) and "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Ps. 24:1), and "I am God, there is no other beside me" (Isa. 44:6), then why does this Lord restrict His saving acts and revelations in history to one, unique people? God's reign and power are universal, but His laws and providential work in history are only comprehensible in light of His relationship to a very specific and tiny group of people - the Israelites. This is a fundamental paradox of the Old Testament and more than anything else highlights the incomplete and partial nature of Old Testament revelation.

Thus from the beginning, there were prophesies and foreshadowings of a day when the Gentiles, too, would be included in God's plan of salvation. Isaiah prophesied that "in the latter days, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be exalted high above all other mountains and shall be raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it, and many peoples shall come and say, "Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:2-3). This prophecy is echoed almost verbatim in Micah 4:1-3; Daniel, also, in interpreting the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, speaks of a "mountain" that will cover "the whole earth" (Dan. 2:35). Isaiah also famously prophesies the inclusion of the Gentiles in a passage quoted by Matthew: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles...the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa. 9:1-2).

The lesser prophets also testify to this truth. Hosea speaks of a redemption that will not only restore fallen Israel but bring others into God's family: "I will have pity on Not Pitied, and I will say to Not My People, "You are my people', and he shall say, "Thou art my God" (Hos. 2:23).

Zechariah says: "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day and shall be My people" (Zech. 2:10-11).

Habbakuk says, "The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the seas." This knowledge of God that will fill the whole earth signifies the diffusion of God's law, not just throughout Israel, but to the whole human race.

Malachi makes a similar statement regarding the worship of God when he states that sacrifices to the true God will not be restricted to Israel but will spread throughout the whole earth: "For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 1:11) In Habbaukuk it is "knowledge" and in Malachi "sacrifice" to God that spreads throughout the earth, signifying the eventual universality of true doctrine and worship.

The prophesied inclusion of the Gentiles is bound up intimately with the coming of the Messiah Himself. We have seen how St. Matthew cites Isaiah's prophecy from Isa. 9 in His Gospel, the same chapter which goes on with the famous passage "To us a child is born; unto us a son is given." The message is clear: the coming of the Son, the Mighty God and Prince of Peace, means the light of the Lord dawning upon those who walked in great darkness.

This truth is presented most strikingly in Isaiah 49, where the God says that the inclusion of the Gentiles is said to be a gift from the Father to the Son, and in turn a gift of the peoples to the Son. Speaking of the work of the Messiah in the person of Israel, God says, "You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified," but then goes on to say, "It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Isa. 49:3,6). The Gentiles will be given to the Messiah because it would be "too light a thing" is God sent His Son for one race of people only.

We can see, then, that the full inclusion of the Gentiles into God's family is one of the best attested prophecies of the Old Testament. It is also signified typologically in various episodes; for example, all four women in the genealogy of Christ are Gentiles, demonstrating a sort of anticipation of their full inclusion in the Messianic age. Our Lord Himself hints that the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5) and the feeding of the widow of Zarepath (1 Kings 17) are also signs of the Messiah's ministry to the Gentiles (Luke 4:25-27).

The passages the Church has selected for the day's readings confirm this teaching. Isaiah 60:1-6 speaks about nations covered in darkness being illuminated by the light of the Lord, and says prophetically "the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.  Caravans of camels shall fill you,  dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD." The Psalm for the day, Psalm 72, reminds us that God's reign is universal, and that "every nation on earth" will adore the Lord, whose dominion is "from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Ps. 72:8). The Epistle reading from Ephesians 3 reminds us that this inclusion of the Gentiles is not just something superfluous to the mission of Christ, but is a fundamental part of the Gospel that was inaugurated with the establishment of the Church: "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 co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:5-6).

This multitude of prophecies, this "mystery of Christ" that Paul speaks of in Eph. 3:4, this profound truth that is signified typologically throughout the Old and New Testaments (the Prodigal Son is also about the Jews and Gentiles, with the younger, wandering son signifying the Gentiles), is all epitomized by the visit of the three Magi, who signify the Gentiles of the world. In asking why there are specifically three wise men in Tradition, we could point out that there are three gifts mentioned - gold, frankincense and myrrh - but the number three is also indicative of the nations of the world, which according to Roman geography, were distributed over three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa). This is why there is usually one white wise man, one black, and one Semitic looking. They signify all the Gentile nations spread over all the continents of the earth coming to recognize and adore the King of Kings, the Messiah of Israel but also the Light of the Nations - and how fitting that the Magi, these symbols of the nations, are led to the Light of the Nations by the light of a star?

There are many profound truths here, and many that are connected with other mysteries of Faith. Let us conclude with the antiphon to the Benedictus in the traditional Office and the antiphon to the Magnificat for Second Vespers of the day, which connect the Epiphany proper with other manifestations or epiphanies of Christ:

"Today the Church is joined to her celestial spouse, because in Jordan Christ doth wash her sins; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal marriage-feast, and the guests exult in the water turned to wine."

"We keep our Holy Day adored with three miracles: today a star led the Magi to the crib, today wine was made from water at the marriage, today in Jordan Christ willed to be baptized by John to save us."


Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Fantastic, Boniface. I am emailing this to others.

As an aside, compare the Catholic Bible with the KJV in this passage from Malachias that you posted.

:"For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 1:11)

For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.

The Protestants butchered it so it would fit with their doctrinal heresies; and that is not the only example of their falsification of scripture

Elizabeth said...

@I Am Not Spartacus: I see the different words but I don't understand what's particularly wrong with the King James Version. Excuse my ignorance :)