Feast of Epiphany
Sunday 8th January 2023
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
Look! When Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the reign of King Herod, three wise men from the east appeared in Jerusalem. ‘Where is the new born King of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star rising in the east and have come to give him homage.’ When Herod heard this he was agitated and then all Jerusalem was too. He called together all the leading priests and religious experts and demanded, ‘Where is the Messiah to be born?’ They said, ‘In Bethlehem, in Judea, because it was written in the prophets: “And you Bethlehem, in Judea, you are by no means the least amongst the princes of Judea, for out of you will come the Leader who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod called the wise men in privately and asked them particularly for the time when the star appeared. Then he sent them on to Bethlehem saying, ‘Go, search carefully for the child and when you have found him, let me know. Then I’ll come and pay him homage.’ After hearing this, they went and, look, the star they had seen in the east led them on and stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they were overcome with joy. Coming into the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold frankincense and myrrh.
God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod so they returned to their home country by a different route.
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
Give judgement to the king, O God,
and your justice to his son,
so he can give righteousness to your people,
and judge justly for the poor.
Righteousness will flourish in his days,
and an abundance of peace till the moon exists no more.
He will reign from sea to sea,
across the widest expanse of the lands.
The kings of Tarshish and the coastlands
will pay homage to him.
The kings of Sheba and Seba
will offer him gifts.
Yes, before him all kings will bow down in homage,
all nations will serve him.
For he will save the needy when they cry out,
the poor also and those who have no help.
He will be a refuge for the poor and needy.
He will give life to those in need.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving God, our hearts are filled with a myriad of desires as stars fill the sky. Send us your Spirit that we may follow the desires that truly lead to worship of Jesus for in him is found the fullness of life and love. We ask this in his name confident that you will hear us.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
The Story of the Magi is so familiar to us, so beautifully portrayed in art, we may be lulled into thinking it is just a lovely scene in the Christmas narrative. Not so. In Matthew’s narrative it introduces crucial elements of the dynamic of salvation.
While Matthew has stressed in his opening chapter the Jewish background of Jesus, it is foreigners who are the first to worship. So early in the Gospel, Matthew foreshadows the final commission that Jesus will give to his followers: to go out to the world, to the foreigners and preach his good news.
The term ‘magi’ is difficult to translate as it brings together a number of elements. These people would have been experts in astronomy and astrology and probably priests in their own religion. In a sense they represent the best that human culture and reason can offer. They respond with curiosity to the star, come to Jerusalem, are guided by the knowledge from the Jewish prophets, then, finding the child, worship God-with-us, Immanuel. They show that our faith is not something that exists in a vacuum but rather that God works through nature and human endeavour, using them to bring us to the pinnacle of our desires, worship.
Herod was known as a vicious, violent and paranoid ruler. A saying of the time which entailed a clever play on the Greek words, said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. The innocent question of the Magi concerning the new-born King of the Jews provokes the evil response of Herod which will lead to the massacre of the Innocents, which occurs just after this Gospel reading. By this Matthew foreshadows the evil response to the goodness of Jesus that will ultimately lead to his death, under the title King of the Jews.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
It has been said that we often define ourselves in opposition to other people. The experience of difference makes it so easy to slip into terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’ then it is only a small step to polarisation. But the Gospels don’t work like that. They show that we come to know who we truly are when we offer ourselves either in service to others or in worship to God.
In the opening chapters Matthew not only shows Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish history, he presents this Messiah as ‘God with us’. Yet the first to worship him are not his own people but rather some foreigners from afar. At the conclusion of this Gospel Jesus orders, yes, orders his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. We can say that the fulfilment of this most Jewish of the Gospels is not to have a Christian community who is closed in on itself but rather one who takes their faith out to all the world – for it is when they are doing that that Jesus has promised to be with them.
In the Magi, those experts in astronomy and astrology and possibly priests in their own religion, we see people who have come on a quest filled with courage, curiosity and tenacity. They were looking for an infant King. They found him clothed not in royal glory but as God clothed in human flesh. While they offered themselves to him in worship and with the best gifts they had, this was in response to discovering the extraordinary offering God was making to them in the person of Jesus. God offering to them. They offering in return. This becomes the model by which we define ourselves, not by opposition but by service and love.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
The Gospel text states clearly that the wise men, approaching Jesus, fell down and adored. But the question can be asked, just when did this adoration begin: when they saw the child or rather way back when they began the long process that brought them to that moment? In becoming ‘magi’ they would have worked and studied hard. The strange star they saw no doubt delighted and intrigued many but they alone allowed that curious emotion to take effect on their feet. They followed the star, yes, but even more their desire. This made them brave. They were prepared to ask directions, even in the court of the murderous Herod, whose reputation they surely knew. They listened to the marvellous prophecies recounted by Jewish religious leaders, who strange to say did not bother to travel the nine kilometres to see what might be in Bethlehem. For all their religious knowledge, they lacked the spark in the heart that leads to worship. The magi journeyed on and found the fulfilment of all their desire and more besides. They came searching for a great king and found God in human flesh. The use of all their abilities had led them to this moment.
So what about us? The magi gave their best to what they did – to their study, their journeying, the gifts they gave – not out of a desire for personal success but as a way of allowing something greater to determine their lives and, in this, they discovered they were serving God. We may not be called out of our routine life but even when we cook a cake, weed a garden, work a mine shift, teach a class, or do any of the myriad of mundane tasks that make up our lives, we too can follow the Star of Jesus and adore God in all that we do.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
– This picture from the St Albans Psalter is the first of four paintings of the Magi in this Psalter. Compare the faces of the Magi on the journey out and back. As they return, they all look older wiser – even the horses look more thoughtful. After the warning in the dream they must have wondered just what this child would be facing.
– These frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Magi chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence are a wonderful celebration of Renaissance life. In what looks like a series of royal processions the three kings, each on a different wall, come with an array of people and animals, even camels, raptors and a tiger!. On the south wall is King Melchior and his retinue.
– Note the. Extraordinary number of people – over a hundred – in the painting of KingBalthazar and his retinue on the east wall. Notice how many prelates there are. On the left side of the fresco, there is a soldier carrying a monstrance. Note also the scene of the deer being hunted. The deer was a symbol of Christ in this period. The deer being hunted would bring to mind the attempt by Herod to hunt down the Christ child.
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
The Magi came to the Christ Child bringing the best of who they were and all that they had to offer. In return, they received the insight and wisdom to worship God in human flesh. As you go through this week, mull on the many opportunities that are offered to you to offer yourself in worship to God or in service of those whom you met. Notice the times and situations where God seems to be hiding, waiting to be recognised and worshipped.
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
Rest in the love of your God
The Magi came to Jesus by using the best of the many gifts and talents they had received: education, wealth, reason, curiosity, courage, resourcefulness. Only after using all these gifts did they recognise come to worship God in human flesh.
Consider the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you. As you rest in God’s love, ponder on what these gifts tell you about God’s calling to you. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to use these gifts so that you can grow to maturity and worship God in your ordinary life.
Rest in the love of your God.