Almost 3,000 years ago, the prophet Isaiah (who had rebuked the Israelites, urging their repentance for many years) offered hope to his spiritual children who had become captives because of their sin. He assured his fellow Jews that they would not be stuck in their darkness forever.
Isaiah proclaimed that the Lord’s light would rise in the darkness, and kings of the earth would walk by its light (Is. 60:3). At this same time, “…sons shall come from afar…a multitude of camels…” and they will bring gifts of gold and frankincense, offering their praise to God.
Intentionally, the bishops chose this chapter from Isaiah for the First Reading on this feast of the Epiphany.
A little less than 1,000 years after Isaiah’s prophesy, Matthew (the Apostle) is writing his account of Jesus’ life (the Gospel of Matthew). His intended audience was the Jewish community. This explains a lot about his writing style, as well as the details he chooses to include within his story. For example, Matthew is the only Evangelist who shares the Epiphany story; THE ONLY ONE.
This means that the story reveals something that the Jewish people, with their knowledge of the prophets and scriptures, would understand… something that non-Jews would read and simply think, “hmm… that’s a nice story….”
However, since the Jewish people held scripture sacred, and basically had it memorized, they would immediately recognize Matthew’s bold claims, and would probably freak out (whether the outburst was due to excitement or rage). Matthew isn’t fabricating this story, but he is highlighting the important details in order to make his point clear.
Matthew’s Three Claims
- This newborn babe is God: Matthew describes a light –a star– that has risen out of the darkness. Three kings from the East (which most likely means they came by camel) walked by this light, bringing with them gifts of gold and frankincense. This is an exact match for the prophesy of Isaiah, but what’s most important to notice is that Isaiah mentions that these gifts of gold and frankincense and were brought and given to God. In Matthew’s account, these gifts are given to the baby Jesus. Since everything else is a match for the prophecy, original Jewish readers would have understood that Matthew is claiming that this baby is God, the Light in the darkness.
- This newborn babe is the King of the Jews: This part is pretty obvious… the Magi actually voice that they are looking for the newborn king of the Jews. However, what isn’t spelled out explicitly is that these gifts (of gold and frankincense) were not common, and they were quite expensive… like, really expensive (think life savings). These were costly gifts that one would only give to a king. And – despite the fact that the 3 Wise Men find him living in poverty, they still give him the gifts. They still see him as the King of the Jews.
- This newborn babe is their Priest: Matthew mentions a third gift given by the eastern Kings; the gift of myrrh. Myrrh is an aromatic spice added to the holy oil to anoint the priests of Israel. Its only other use is for anointing of dead bodies. God used these Gentile Kings to foreshadow Jesus’ priesthood– that he was on this earth to offer sacrifice. It isn’t until later in the Gospel that we learn he is also the sacrifice.
Without even realizing it, the gifts chosen by “sons from afar” contained a much deeper truth than these Kings could have known or intended. This was, of course, thanks to the Holy Spirit inspiring and acting through them. Thus, using both history and “current events” as proof, Matthew (also inspired by the Holy Spirit) proclaims that Jesus is a priest, Jesus is their King, and Jesus is their God.
Whether this idea sparked feelings of thrill or anger, Jewish readers would most likely have been too intrigued to stop reading.
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