Epiphany and Evangelization

Brad Bursa

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The story of the Magi, which we celebrate liturgically today in the Epiphany, contains striking insights pertaining to culture and evangelization.

The first point to be made here is to note the number of cultures present within this story – the story contains no less than four cultures:

  1. Jesus/Mary (presumably Joseph, but he is not named here) – The primordial Christian community, and the first Christian culture.

  2. Magi from the East – Precisely who these mysterious figures from the East were has been the source of much scholarly debate. There are four possibilities: members of the Persian priestly caste, possessors of supernatural knowledge and ability, magicians, and deceivers or seducers.[1] They may have been practitioners of astrology. More theologically-speaking, Benedict XVI notes that they “represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word…They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ…They represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.”[2]

  3. Herod – Benedict XVI notes, regarding Herod, that he “was king by favor of Rome. He was an Idumaean, not a son of David.” He was an appallingly cruel “caricature of the kingship that had been promised to David.”[3]

  4. Chief priests/Scribes – Traditional Jews of the Old Covenant.

That the story contains a peculiar number of cultures is one thing, how each reacts to the Lord Jesus (i.e. to that proposal of the Gospel incarnate) is another. Herod offers a resounding “no” out of fear that this “newborn king” will, in some way, outmatch him or overtake his power. His insecurity of his own provenance is unmasked by the true heir to the throne of David, and Herod’s heart is not open to the possibility of a God-made-man who will shepherd Israel. The chief priests and scribes of the people know something of this “newborn king,” that something would happen in Bethlehem. Yet, even with this knowledge, and even in the midst of the Magi who had traveled from afar to see this thing that happened in Bethlehem, the chief priests and scribes are not moved – they are content to remain untouched and unaffected by the potential Mystery. Finally, in the Magi the religious sense of man responds to the presence of a star, a sign of God’s presence on earth, and is moved with longing for adoration. The Magi are encountered by Jesus Christ, an encounter shrouded in humility on all sides, and are changed.

Apart from the obvious invitation for an examination of conscience, a final point comes clear. The Magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so they return to their country by another way. This, perhaps, is one of the most remarkable actions in the whole narrative: the Magi return home. They do not remain in Bethlehem; they do not pitch tents. They go back into their culture, but they go back changed, and because they have been renewed in Christ, they become capable of being sources of renewal through their witness within their own culture – inasmuch as the culture stands in need of renewal in Jesus Christ. The renewal of a culture only happens in and through the person who has actually been renewed by Christ - the one who has “had an epiphany” through God’s revelation in Christ Jesus.

 

[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 92-93.

[2] Ibid., 95-97.

[3] Ibid., 31-32.