First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Second Reading Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
Gospel Matthew 2:1-12
Gospel – Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ “
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Hearing the Word
“The Feast of Inclusion”
Christmas Celebrations culminate with the Feast of the Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”. The liturgy of the feast focuses on acclaiming Jesus as the King for all people. This is particularly relevant for all those who, like the magi in the Gospel reading, are not of the Jewish background. At the time of Jesus these non-Jews were called the “Gentiles”, which also means “the nations.”
God’s covenant with Abraham marked the beginning of the people of Israel. They traced their ancestry to that ancient patriarch and saw themselves as members of the covenantal community which started with him. Yet God, when giving Abraham the promise of becoming a great nation, anticipated that “all the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Gen 12:3). This aspect of the promise to Abraham was understood in a number of different ways. There were many among the chosen people who thought that God’s election and blessing were exclusively theirs, and that the Gentiles would receive the blessing of God only through the people of Israel. Others were keenly aware that God’s promises of blessing and salvation extended to all humanity and included both the Jews and the Gentiles.
This second view is evident in the words of the prophet Isaiah, included in the third part of the book bearing his name. The prophet demonstrates not only the awareness of the universal scope of God’s intentions, but also joyfully awaits the time when all peoples of the earth will recognise the God of Israel as the one true God, their God. In the celebratory hymn read today, Isaiah speaks directly to Jerusalem, God’s beloved city, about the light that shines upon it. That light symbolises God’s presence which will radiate out to the whole world. In a sweeping prophetic vision Isaiah describes the magnificent processions of “the nations” from all corners of the world approaching Jerusalem, carrying their wealth as offerings to God. The prophet identifies these newcomers as God’s “sons from afar, and daughters carried in the arms of their nurses”. These pilgrims to Jerusalem are God’s children. Writing about 500 years before the birth of Christ and the rise of Christianity, Isaiah anticipated the fulfilment of God’s original intent of calling to himself all the nations, “the Gentiles”, of the earth.
The beginning of the Christian Church was marked by heated arguments about who, and on what conditions, can become a member of the people of God. A majority of the people at the time divided the world between the “Jews” and the “Gentiles”, making various distinctions between the two. The apostle Paul fervently upheld the view that all peoples of the earth, regardless of their ethnic origin, can become members of God’s family by meeting only one essential demand – having faith in Jesus. His tireless and unyielding work to implement this principle earned him the name “the apostle of the Gentiles.” The Church recognised and accepted this view, although not all at the time agreed. In the second reading Paul, or one of his disciples responsible for writing to the Ephesians, argue for the universal nature of the community of God’s children. He calls it “the mystery” that had not been known for generations. Paul proclaims that this mystery has been now made public through the Holy Spirit, communicating through the apostles and prophets. They declare that, because of Jesus Christ, the time has come to abolish old distinctions and welcome the Gentiles as full members of the covenantal community of God’s people. These former strangers are now heirs to the promise given originally to Abraham and his progeny. Paul spoke of this new and inclusive community as “the new creation” (Gal 6:15).
Matthew, himself a Jewish Christian, purposefully begins his account of the life of Jesus on earth with the story of three sages in search for a newly born king of the Jews. They are obviously Gentiles – they come from the east and do not know where the Jewish king was to be born. This would have been obvious to all Jews who would be familiar with the prophecy of Micah which pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. These Gentiles were divinely guided by a star which means that God led them to the place of Jesus’ birth. Upon finding the baby, the three sages prostrated themselves before him recognising a divine person and honour him accordingly. The gifts they offered were appropriate for royalty. Two of these gifts, gold and frankincense, were the very same gifts which the Gentiles carried to the Lord God in Isaiah’s prophecy. They came in search of the King of Israel, and honoured him with gifts. They also worshipped him as their God. By including this story in his account of Jesus’ life, Matthew shows that in Jesus’ coming to the world and in the foreign sages’ pilgrimage, Isaiah’s vision of universal salvation is at last fulfilled. This newborn child will be the King of Israel and the saviour for all people.
The Epiphany is the feast of inclusion. It celebrates the birth of the new and inclusive community of God’s people. This new community, founded by Jesus, will become a reality in the Christian Church which will bring together Jews and Gentiles, with no distinction. At the beginning of history God acted exclusively for the people of Israel, but the scope of his salvific purpose was always universal. Inclusion of other nations among God’s people was always intended, and, in Jesus, it was enacted. During the feast of Epiphany all those who come from among “the nations”, that is a vast majority of Christians, bow down in a gesture of thanksgiving before God, just as the Gentile sages did in Bethlehem. Doing so, they fulfil what Isaiah foresaw in his vision, and what the Psalmist prayed in the words, “may all the kings bow before him, and all the nations serve him.”
Listening to the Word of God
Inclusion and exclusion are experiences that we have all had at different times in our lives. Sometimes the exclusion can be a minor one, for example being excluded from being a part of a group of friends that you wanted so much to belong to. Or it can be a major one, such as exclusion from the access to certain services, benefits or jobs because of one’s race, class, ethnicity or gender.
Whether minor or major, exclusion hurts and scars us because it is often based on factors that define who we are and who are important to us. When an individual or a group exclude us, it is as if they diminish our sense of self and dignity. Exclusion occurs in all our relationships. For instance, in our families there are members who are excluded from invitations or recognition because of what they have done or some other failure. In our ethnic or racial groups we exclude other ethnic groups because of past hostilities and prejudice. In our parishes we exclude other denominations or faiths who are different from us. Nationally our leaders choose which groups will be excluded from the country or from its governance. Thus, we are often excluded or we exclude others. It is a sad fact of human life, that we like to draw distinctions which then serve to exclude others and prevent them from accessing what we have, and benefit from. Differences and failure to integrate diversity is one of the reasons for the fragmentation, hatred, brokenness, wars and conflicts that are destroying our world and common humanity.
Inclusion is the opposite of exclusion and we have also had experiences of inclusion where we experience the warmth of love, acceptance, hospitality, friendship and community. This experience is enhanced when it goes across divisions and hostilities, when people defy their ethnocentrism and choose to reach out across the divides in friendship, hospitality and generosity. It is wonderful to see members of different ethnic and racial groups building friendships, marriages and social networks of solidarity. The plan of God is that of inclusion and diversity, where we retain our cultures, personalities and differences while relating to those different from us, and allowing them to celebrate their uniqueness.
Inclusion is not based on sameness or uniformity. On the contrary, it is a celebration of the diversity and dignity of all human persons. It is one of the tragedies of our times that parishes reflect the divisions in their communities instead of modelling a new inclusive humanity which is at the heart of the Christmas message. Jesus died in order to break down barriers between humanity and God and between all divisions. Therefore, all parishes and communities of Jesus’ disciples are called to be agents of inclusion.
How I ever had an experience of exclusion? On what grounds?
Have I ever participated in acts of exclusions on ethnic, class, gender, age or race grounds? What were the consequences of these actions for those excluded?
Response to God
Confess the sins of exclusion by you, your group, your parish. Pray for a new beginning where you will be a channel of inclusion.
Response to your World
Identify prejudice and discrimination that operates in your community (your group, family, parish, school). Resolve to take steps to stop such practices.
Who is excluded from our group? What immediate action can we undertake to change this hurtful situation?
Lord God, today I pray with the words of your Son through whom you brought broken humanity together – “I pray for those who will believe in me, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. Amen.