[A homily from three years ago… not much has changed!]
For Americans, apart from unusually violent storms and weird shifts in the weather, the past week has witnessed unprecedented shifts in the political climate. Truly dark clouds seem to be lowering over the country. This may be an illusion created by an acrimonious electoral cycle. It may be fact. One way or another, citizens of this country seem to be groping in an increasingly gloomy environment. And today the cycle of readings for Sunday turns to Matthew’s gospel
especially for light, guidance, and inspiration.
The life of the Church goes its own way while public attention is focused elsewhere on events that entertain or shock and sometimes even frighten us. As we turn to Matthew’s gospel, we can learn a few things about despair and hope, about light in the midst of darkness.
The wheels of liturgical concentration are set in motion by the reading from the Book of Isaiah. The mention of the ancient lands of Zebulun and Naphtali link the first reading and the gospel, for Matthew cites the same passage. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob who gave their names to two tribes of ancient Israel that settled in the northernmost region of the Promised Land. The territory that later came to be known as Galilee lay west of the Lake of Genesereth and the central mountains. It was a fertile, lovely area of rolling hills and grasslands.
The reading from Isaiah refers to a date in the eighth century before Christ after the conquest of Palestine by the Assyrians when the annexation of the lands associated with the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali accelerated their alienation from the rest of Israel. But the prophet was looking ahead to a political liberation that never came, for over the next millennium Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and then Romans all laid claim to the region, sometimes deporting the inhabitants, at other times seeding the area with immigrants from around the Middle East. But for Matthew the message is focused in a very different way – the light that will illuminate the deathly darkness is not a hoped-for liberation from foreign tyranny, but the dawning of the Light of the World, fulfilling the prophecy in ways far transcending the dreams of the prophet-poet eight centuries earlier.
Galilee, especially the fertile and densely-populated areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee, became the principal location of Jesus’ ministry. So Matthew introduces his Gospel by evoking not only history but geography. After the Assyrians had devastated the northern parts of Israel and brought the ancient kingdom of the north to an end, the region had become home to a variety of peoples, the galil haggoyim. By the time of Jesus, it was known as Galilee of the Gentiles, despised by the Jews of the south, but filled with heavily populated towns, especially around the Sea of Galilee. It was there that Jesus decided to locate after he left Nazareth It became the major scene of his teaching and healing ministry. This chapter of Matthew leads directly to the Sermon on the Mount. And in a preview glimpse of the rest of the gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus extended his ministry from his base in Galilee – teaching, preaching, and healing.
The second reading seems to depart from the themes of Isaiah and Matthew, but a connection is made early on when Paul tells us clearly where the genius of effective ministry lies if we are to be true disciples – “Let there be no dissensions among you, but …be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” [1 Corinthians 1:10] I suppose the bad news is that Christians have always had a hard time avoiding factions and disagreements. Maybe that’s why Paul placed so much importance on it. But diversity can also be the anvil on which truth is hammered into shape, as subsequent history has so often revealed. The important thing, as Paul goes on to say, is that love must prevail. The 49ers don’t have to hate the Chiefs in order to play against them. Democrats and Republicans can work together for the good of the nation. [And to be sure, divisive allegiances to Benedict or Francis or Lefebvre, for that matter, hardly differ from those to Paul, Apollos, and Cephas that so vexed St. Paul in today’s reading.]
We all have moments or periods or places of gloom and darkness in our lives. Whole countries do. Today Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Sudan are under attack, sometimes lethally. Earthquakes, cold snaps, and storms create suffering. Economies collapse. The United States seems caught up in an unprecedented political conflict in which decency and respect have been the first casualties. We know what it means to long for a little light at the end or even in the middle of our own tunnels. And Matthew is telling us what that light is. Or, rather, who it is. He will also be telling us in the months to come what it means to go toward that light, to grasp it, and to spread it — to be a disciple.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples one last time back in Galilee, where it all began. From there discipleship will now spread to the ends of the earth. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and see, I am with you always, to the close of the age’.” [Matthew 28:18-20]
Tomorrow our nation will observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15th in 1929. He died at the hands of an assassin in Memphis just over 39 years later. It seems safe to say that things have not been the same since, not exactly. I can’t help but wonder what King would think of the present situation, not least the Impeachment of Donald Trump. But somehow I think he might be even more focused on voter registration and the full restoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his life, preaching, and witness were so instrumental in passing.
As we begin the period of the year still considered “ordinary time,” which may take a bit of stretching to accommodate in days to come, the figure who dominates our scripture readings is another social and spiritual reformer, the man known forever as
John the Baptist, the “forerunner.” St. Paul does not mention him in his letter to the Corinthians, but the call-out regarding the grace and peace of God casts light on the passage from Isaiah applied here to John, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” [Isaiah 49:6].
Next week, the focus on Sundays will shift to the teachings of Jesus. But John mattered, especially to Jesus. And so we pause to consider him and those like him who prepare the way.
The first two readings remind us that God lifted up Israel and then the New Israel, the community of Jesus Christ throughout the world, to be a light to the nations. Sometimes that light seems to falter and even to fail, but it will not be extinguished. Whether we will add to its brightness and light up the world, as Dr. King did, or forget the gospel in our enthusiasm for amusements and entertainment is up to us. As King reminded us in his address to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington on Feb. 6, 1968, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Like John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the Light himself (see John 1:8), but gave witness to the light and so helped scatter the darkness of the times. Like John, he paid for his testimony with his life. Nor did John or King end the darkness, which, as it does, returned and pressed ever harder against the Light. In terms of King’s struggle, de facto segregation still prevails in great American cities; minority voter suppression and disenfranchisement persist in several states; disproportionate law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration exist in much of the legal system; violence and fear darken the lives of citizens trapped by poverty and discrimination; and war itself, which King was addressing that day in 1968, less than a month before his martyrdom, continues to threaten and scar the world. But the struggle for justice and peace goes on. It does so because of the work and witness of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who continue to bear testimony to the Light that scatters the moral and political darkness of our era.
“I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation” [Psalm 40:8-10].
Today’s commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus marks the conclusion of the Christmas cycle with the event that inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry. The commercial world marked the finale over a week ago, with the January sales that form the climax of the most important sales period of the year. The carols had already fallen silent on mall sound systems and radio broadcasts around December 26th, and most of the Christmas decorations were gone before New Years, or by Twelfth Night (AKA the Feast of the Epiphany) at the latest. And then the reckoning.
This year, U.S. households appear to have spent an average of $1,496 during the holidays, about $40 less than last year, despite the much-touted “robust economy.” According to Deloitte estimates, “about a third of that figure represents the average amount spent on Christmas gifts and gift cards: $511. The remaining $985 goes towards costs like entertaining, going out, and buying outfits to wear during festive celebrations.” Again, about a $14 decrease from 2018. [If curious, consult https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/retail-distribution/holiday-retail-sales-consumer-survey.html] In a jittery economy like ours, every penny counts.
Even so, U.S. retail sales in 2019 increased by around 4.5 percent to a record-breaking $1.002 trillion, a figure approaching the GDP of Indonesia and much greater than that of the Netherlands or Saudi Arabia. While over 15% of Americans believed their Christmas spending would leave them in debt, 72% were sure their holiday spending would not. But LendEDU, a student loan refinancing company, reported that big holiday shoppers (average spending around $2100, some 60% of the shopping population) expected to be around $554 in debt after the holidays were over. According to CensusWide, while 14.2% of Americans try to reduce money spent on Christmas by selling possessions, 5.8% borrow from friends and family and 4.2% get loans to cover Christmas spending. [For all this and more, see ‘Christmas Spending Statistics: Deck the Halls with Boughs of Money,’ https://fortunly.com/statistics/christmas-spending-statistics/#gref]
Thus passeth the commercial Christmas fest of 2019. What Jesus would make of all this is anyone’s guess, although he had quite a lot to say about how wealth should be managed to benefit the neediest. I suspect that he would not be overly impressed with the American way of celebrating his birth.
In terms of today’s feast, Jesus’ baptism was reckoned so important a moment in the gospel tradition that it is described in all four
gospels, a multiple attestation that scripture scholars consider highly significant. It is also referred to in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles appointed for today and finds mention elsewhere in that work.
Three aspects of Jesus’ baptism are singled out in today’s gospel because they point to who and what Jesus was and, just as importantly, who and what we are as Christians. The first is the admission of sin. The second is his anointing as Messiah, and the third his proclamation as Son of God.
The first makes sense for us, but even struck John the Baptist as incongruous in Jesus’ regard. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [Matt. 3:14]. But by being baptized along with everyone else, Jesus places himself solidly in the midst of sinners. He identifies with them. And thus, he can act for them and, as John’s Gospel has it, take away the sins of the world by assuming them. It is the basis for the recognition of Jesus as the Redeemer. St. Paul’s even earlier testimony is clear: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” [Rom 8:3-4].
The gospels also recognize that at his baptism, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit, alluded to in the beautiful reading from the Book of Isaiah – one which Jesus himself cited in his fateful inaugural sermon shortly after he began his public mission. It is at his baptism that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the ‘Christ’ — words which mean in Hebrew and Greek “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed to identify him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized.
The third element contains the deepest mystery of all. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report a strange phenomenon as Jesus came up out of the water — a voice from heaven proclaims him “Son,” and something “like” a dove hovers over him, a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
We should not mistake the significance of all this in our own baptism. A Voice may not have come from heaven, and it’s not likely that any doves descended, but at our baptism each of us is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child. And not only “a” child of God, but by reason of our identification with Jesus in his baptism, death, and resurrection, “the” child, the one Son of God. We are members of the one body of Christ. This is the greatest mystery of all, and most likely one we hardly think of at all.
Today’s second reading doesn’t seem to have much to do with any of this at first glance – but it is part of the story of the first non-Jewish converts to Christ, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and household. But it is very relevant, especially that wonderful saying, ““God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35]. Because Peter has just realized after a revelation from God that no one is to be refused baptism — everyone is called to Christ. And so the great door of salvation was thrown open to all peoples everywhere and forever.
‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation.’ From very early times, Christians have celebrated three different events today — the revelation of God’s son to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each progressively revealed God’s plan of salvation. At Jesus’ baptism, which has its own feast day in a week, the heavens were opened and a voice proclaimed him the Beloved in whom God was well pleased. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his signal appearance on the stage of history. The wedding feast at Cana, found only in John’s Gospel, serves the same purpose — in changing the water into wine, Jesus revealed his saving mission surprisingly, even prematurely, as an act of compassion and obedience.
But the ‘Magoi’ remain the primary focus of our attention today — these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East, who come seeking the
King of the Jews. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were. People still do. Or even if they really existed at all. Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point. Perhaps he was thinking of the passage from Isaiah we just heard. He doesn’t say. He usually does.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns and funny names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted Christians and Christianity had become an imperial religion. They could have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia, these Maghdim as they were called, and God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews. Or why. But belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. Not perhaps by chance the birthday of Mithras, a semi-divine figure of this eastern religion greatly favored by the Roman military, was celebrated on December 25th. He was, incidentally, said to have born in a cave.
Historically, the Magoi were associated with magic (which is named after them) and especially astrology, for they studied the patterns of stars and planets to determine how events on earth manifested the plan of God. Two other Magoi in the New Testament, Simon Magus and Elymas bar Jesus, whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles, were somewhat sinister figures. Each resists the Gospel at first, but both are inevitably subdued by the preaching of the apostles. Here, the Magoi need no convincing. For Matthew, these gentiles submit willingly to the revelation of God, having followed his star out of the east. Their faith is also seen in their quick acceptance of the warning that comes to them in a dream, as it will to Joseph.
And so, after worshipping the child and leaving their gifts, they pass out of sight. These mysterious gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and a final dream in Matthew’s gospel, the dream of a Roman matron who warns her husband not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus on trial for his life.
Now, however, we are left with the Magoi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us?
What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold (chrysos), it is said, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense (Libanon), which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. Myrrh (Smyrna) is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
In light of the kind of things usually exchanged on Christmas as gifts, what the Magoi didn’t bring can be as important as what they did bring. Think for a moment about what you or I might have brought and in fact tend to give one another: toys, food, candy, cigarettes, liquor, clothing, cell phones, books, tools, or even weapons. Not only perishable, but even dangerous offerings. Ancient kings were also dangerous. The Magoi might have paid for their visit with their lives, as the Babes of Bethlehem certainly did. For these foreigners first looked for the King of the Jews where a king was likely to be found: in a palace. They eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house. But the Holy Family who lived there were about to become homeless refugees.
So who are the Magoi, these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course. The strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless, refugees, and the oppressed? And what gifts do we bring?