The Feast of the Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
3 January 2021
An early Christian author, who has become known to us as “Matthew,” was preparing an enlarged edition of the Gospel according to Mark. “Mark” had appeared a couple of decades earlier and was proving very popular in some of the Christian faith communities scattered around the eastern Mediterranean.
For his community—or more likely a network of house-church communities across Antioch and in the neighbouring rural areas—Mark was a fast-paced action story, but it lacked the solid teaching which Matthew wanted his community to have at their fingertips.
Matthew decided to combine the Markan narrative with another early Christian document, the Sayings Gospel which later scholars would call “Q”. This would address the lack of teaching from Jesus, with material such as the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew would also add a proper ending, since the way that Mark ended (with a handful women too scared to say anything to anyone after encountering an angel at the empty tomb) was hardly satisfactory. Matthew knew just what was needed: a final mountaintop epiphany as Jesus sent the Twelve out on their global mission.
But Matthew also needed a better way to start the story of Jesus than Mark offered.
Again, he knew just what was needed.
He would describe the birth of Jesus in the royal town of Bethlehem. Such a messianic postcode for the child’s birth would signal to the corrupt rulers that their day was coming. But he wanted to do more than proclaim a davidic Messiah had arrived, he also wanted to say that Jesus was a second Moses (Moses 2.0). His story would feature a man called Joseph who had dreams, and an evil king who wanted to kill the baby boys, as well as a sojourn in Egypt before a new exodus as God calls his son out of Egypt as Hosea the prophet had declared. Only after all that was done would he arrange for Jesus to arrive in Nazareth, where everyone knew he was actually from.
That would work for the Jewish Christians in the Antioch Jesus communities, but he also needed something for his Gentile membership …
… 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 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.
We all know that story, but in Antioch around 110 CE as Matthew prepared his manuscript this was a whole new version of the birth of Jesus. In fact it was probably the very first version of the birth of Jesus, although others would soon follow: Luke, then the Infancy Gospel of James and later the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Not to mention all the nativity plays and the Christmas cards!
Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus has no annunciation in Nazareth, no census, no overland trip for a pregnant Mary, no search for somewhere to stay (and a quiet corner for a birth to take place), no angels (except in Joseph’s dreams), and no shepherds.
This story which is so familiar to us was totally unknown to Paul, Peter, Mark, John, Thomas and even Luke (who says he researched everything before writing his own Gospel not long after Matthew). I dare say it would have been news to Mary and Joseph as well.
This story is not about an actual event in the first weeks of Jesus’ life, but it is very much about real life events in Antioch more than 100 years later.
Antioch ca 110 CE
The city of Antioch was one of great cultural and trade centres in the Roman world. In many ways it was the ground zero from which the Jesus movement spread throughout the empire and far beyond.
Antioch had a large Jewish population, but was also a critical location where the Jesus movement escaped its Jewish pedigree and welcomed non-Jews (Gentiles) into the community that acknowledged Jesus as their saviour and lord. Those two words sound like religious terms to us, and that is partly true as they derive from popular pagan religious cults at the time. But they were also political terms, since the Roman Emperors claimed to be divine figures (“sons of God”) and required their people to acknowledge them as sotēr (saviour) and kyrios (lord).
Matthew needed to frame his gospel with a story that would locate Jesus firmly in the Jewish world, allow for the inclusion of wise persons from the East (or anywhere else), while asserting a claim to divine status that outranked the emperors of Rome.
He includes the wise men from the East in the opening scenes, but notice how he ends his Gospel:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:16–20]
Matthew begins his story with foreigners coming from afar to worship the Christ child, but he ends the gospel with a command to go and make disciples of every nation, together with a claim that all authority (imperium in Latin) has been given to him in heaven and on earth.
What we glimpse in the opening scenes becomes the mission of the church in the final scene.
And both scenes are relevant to this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus to the Nations.
A truth not mortgaged to historicity
There is something very true in this story crafted by Matthew more than 100 years after the birth of Jesus.
That truth has nothing to do with the visitors who came to see Mary’s newborn son.
The truth beyond historicity concerns our love for the past, our compassion for others alive now, and our revolutionary belief that the only authority that matters is the power of divine love which not even violent imperial regimes can suppress.
Like the Jewish members of Matthew’s house church network, we should treasure the ancient traditions to which we are heirs. The past is the store shed from which a wise disciple brings out just what is needed for the occasion. Sometimes it is something old and sometimes it is something new. (See Matt 13:52)
A Cathedral speaks to that truth. This is not a temporary building. It has a long past and it speaks to a long future. There is a place for what we call “Cathedral thinking” as we imagine how our decisions right now build on the past but also prepare for a future in 50- or 100-years time. Unlike local, state and federal governments, we do not operate on a 4-year electoral cycle.
But valuing the past does not mean erecting walls between us and other people. God was doing something new in Jesus, and God continues to do new things. Let’s push the circle out and make it larger. That was a hard message for the Jewish Christians in Antioch, and it can be a hard message for Anglicans on the North Coast. But guess what: we need to do things differently. The church is going to change.
The mission of Jesus and the epiphany of Christ is not just about religion. As with sotēr (saviour) and kyrios (lord) 2,000 years ago, our beliefs have real-world political consequences. They start with addressing our own sins in the treatment of vulnerable people, but they extend to questions of justice, power, truth-telling, opportunity and the environment.
The politicians will not always welcome our eyes-wide-open engagement with these issues, but neither did the high priest in Jerusalem nor the emperor in Rome. The Cathedral is not a museum for medieval English culture, but a research and development hub for gospel values on the North Coast in 2021 and beyond.
To be all that God calls us to be we need to know and love our own tradition, we need to welcome people from different cultures and faiths, and we need to take seriously the revolutionary words of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
For further reading: Jesus Database – Star of Revelation