The word Epiphany derives from a Greek term that means “showing forth, manifestation, making public.” According to the account of the Epiphany in Matthew 2, magi, or wise men, from the East (perhaps Persia or Babylonia) came to Israel to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. Thus the feast of the Epiphany marks the manifestation of Jesus the Messiah of Israel to non-Jews. This narrative appears only in Matthew’s Gospel, which ends with the risen Jesus’ command to his apostles to make disciples of all nations.
The feast of the Epiphany provides an opportunity to reflect on the character of our Christian faith as both particular and universal. While acknowledging our roots in Israel and the Old Testament, we Christians are convinced that the good news of Jesus Christ has significance for all the peoples of the world.
The dynamic of the particular and the universal is prominent in the Magi story. These mysterious representatives of all nations come to Jerusalem in the land of Israel. There they learn from the Jewish scribes and the Hebrew Scriptures that the Messiah of Israel was to be born in Bethlehem of Judah (David’s city). So they go to Bethlehem and pay homage to the child Jesus. They seek out a particular person in a particular time and place, not an idea or a myth.
The dynamic of the particular and the universal is also prominent in today’s Old Testament readings. The passage from Isaiah 60 looks forward to the light that will shine forth from Jerusalem. It foresees that all the nations of the world will walk by that light, will acknowledge and enjoy that light, and so will proclaim the praises of the God of Israel. The verses from Psalm 72 use similar language and look forward to the day when “every nation on earth will adore you.” Rooted in the historical particularity of ancient Israel’s language, theology and institutions, the hope expressed in these texts is that one day all nations will be part of the people of God.
How that hope becomes a reality is the subject of the reading from Ephesians 3. It shows that through the particular Jewish historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, membership in the people of God has been extended beyond the limits of ethnic Israel to all the peoples of world. The readings for Epiphany remind us of our identity as the “catholic” church. The word catholic means “universal, worldwide, all over.” We are rooted in ancient Israel and yet open to all peoples. We come from a particular history, yet are open to all the nations of the world. As God’s people in and through Christ, we have become members of the same body of Christ and are sharers in God’s promises to Abraham. Neither an ethnic group nor a sect, we are a universal, that is, catholic church.