The National Catholic Review
The Epiphany of the Lord (B), Jan. 8, 2006
“‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage’” (Matt 2:2)

The magi (who seem to have been Persian priests and/or Babylonian astronomers) came to Israel in search of the “King of the Jews,” the Gentile translation for “messiah” or “anointed one.” In ancient Israel priests, prophets and kings were anointed. In some Jewish circles in Jesus’ time the figure of the messiah increasingly took on superhuman and future dimensions. This messiah was one whom God would send to restore Israel to its past glory (and much more) and to fulfill the promises made by God to his people. The Greek equivalent of “messiah” is christos.

From Matt 2:1-12, we are to imagine that the magi had heard about the messiah of Israel and came in search of him under divine guidance through the agency of a star. However, the messiah they found was probably not the messiah they had heard about. The messiah they found was an infant, not a powerful warrior. He was the victim of a plot between Herod and Israel’s religious leaders, and so a suffering messiah. He was a messiah not for Israel only but also for all the nations of the world, one through whom the walls between Jews and Gentiles would be broken down. The magi found a different and more surprising messiah than they or anyone else expected. The magi episode at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel also foreshadows Jesus’ passion and death, as well as the risen Jesus’ mandate to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).

Although Jesus was a surprising kind of messiah, his significance for all nations (symbolized by the visit of the magi) has roots in the Old Testament passages that are used as the Mass readings for the feast of the Epiphany. The hope expressed in Isa 60:1-6 was that all the peoples of the world might converge on the holy city of Jerusalem, and bring their gifts of gold and frankincense (as the magi do). The hope of Psalm 72 is that all the kings of the earth might pay homage to and serve the God of Israel and his messiah.

Biblical universalism is not a soft democracy in which all people are equal from the start. Rather, it affirms the sovereignty of the God of Israel and God’s choice of a special people. Others can become part of God’s people through their recognition of the God of Israel. It is universalism (encompassing all nations) through particularity (God’s people Israel).

The reading from the Letter to the Ephesians picks up the theme of biblical universalism and points to Jesus, the surprising messiah, as the pivotal figure in opening up the boundaries of God’s people. Through this surprising and unlikely messiah, non-Jews can and do become co-heirs to and partners in the promises made by the God of Israel to his chosen people. In this context Jesus functions as the representative and indeed the incarnation of his people Israel, and surpasses even the wildest hopes for the messiah of Israel. As members of the body of Christ, through our affiliation with Jesus the Jew, we can become part of God’s people.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Readings: Isa 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-6; Matt 2:1-12

• How might you join the magi in paying homage to Jesus, the surprising messiah?

• In what ways does the magi story anticipate developments in later parts of Matthew’s Gospel?

• How do you understand the role of Jesus in the biblical economy, or plan of salvation?

Recently by Daniel J. Harrington

Receiving Scripture: Archaeology, art and faith (February 25, 2014)
Disputed Questions (February 28, 2013)
Reading Benedict (February 28, 2013)
Cultures Ancient and Modern (March 12, 2012)

Recently in The Word