How Jesus made an insignificant town the center of the world
The church celebrates the end of the liturgical season of Christmas with the Epiphany of the Lord. Today’s readings invite one to reflect on the way that Bethlehem, an otherwise insignificant town, became through Jesus the center of global attention (Mt 2:5).
What makes your homeland important?
What gifts can it offer to Christ?
As an individual, what can you offer to the Christ you seek? What concrete step today does the church need to make to show its openness to the world?
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah. (Mt 2:6; Mi 5:1)
There are many competitors for the privilege of “center of the world.” Great cities with vigorous intellectual traditions like Alexandria and Athens have claimed the title, and even today, a city like Boston calls itself “the hub of the universe.” I’ve even heard the residents of remote Jocko, Montana, boast of their majestic scenery with the greeting, “Welcome to Jocko, the center of the world!”
The oldest map of the Holy Land in existence is a floor mosaic in the Church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan. The map depicts Jerusalem as the largest city at the very center of the Holy Land. In a less modest approach, there are other ancient maps in which the Holy Land marks the center of the world as the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe branch out from this Christological center.
Today’s readings invite one to reflect on the way that Bethlehem, an otherwise insignificant town, became through Jesus the center of global attention.
In this Sunday's readings, the church presents images of worshipers coming from every direction. This global pilgrimage to the newborn prince reveals a worldwide hunger for genuine justice that only an anointed one can satisfy (Ps 72:1-2). These four corners of the world also have certain characteristics that add nuance to the narrative.
- The East was a place of knowledge. The magi were astrologers and scholars from the courts of a Persian kingdom (Mt 2:1-2). Over the centuries these magi took on the character of “kings.” This is due in part from passages like Ps 72:10-22 that speak of the kings from all the nations coming to behold and honor the anointed one.
- The West symbolized trade, especially in raw materials. “The kings of Tarshish,” reads the psalm, “and the Isles shall offer gifts” (Ps 72:10). Tarshish is a mythical reference to the uttermost western region of Europe, perhaps a place like modern day Spain. The Bible is sprinkled with references to Tarshish, or the ships of Tarshish. For example, in the opening verses of the Book of Jonah the reluctant prophet attempts to get away from the Lord by escaping to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction of the city of Nineveh where the Lord sent him to preach.
- The South was the source of luxury items like incense and ivory. This Sunday’s readings from Isaiah and Psalm 72 reference worshipers from lands that today would be Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Isaiah speaks of “Caravans of camels, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah and all from Sheba shall pay their respects” (Is 60:6). Ps 72:10, meanwhile, tells of “The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute” (Ps 72:10).
- The North was the home of ancient civilizations and imperial power. Ps 72:7-8 mentions that all people will be ruled, “From sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the world.” This “River” is the great Euphrates to the north which flows from Turkey through Syria and down to Iraq to meet with the Tigris. These two great rivers mark the boundary of Mesopotamia, that is, the cradle of civilization in biblical times.
Each of these regions would be important on its own in human eyes, but, in the presence of Christ, each encounters a longing for salvation. Earliest Christians recognized that this longing was universal, and their word “catholic” for that all-encompassing reality described the one, holy, and apostolic church in every Christian creed.
The feast of the Epiphany is an opportunity to take this radical openness to the world seriously. Even as the world comes to Jesus, his church must be open to the world. “It has now been revealed,” writes Paul in this Sunday’s second reading, “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5-6).
Places have the power to draw people. Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral in Rome this past week, for example, drew the world’s attention to his life of service to Christ. In this Sunday’s readings, the church reflects on the way that an insignificant place like Bethlehem drew the entire world to itself when it revealed the presence of God in the newborn Jesus. This longing to reach Bethlehem continues today in the longing for the peace and justice Christ offers to all who seek him out.