Wednesday 6 January 2016
In the Book of Common Prayer, the Feast of the Epiphany is subtitled “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The term “Gentiles” in the biblical languages is pretty much interchangeable with “the nations.” The Hebrew word goyim means both “nations” and “Gentiles,” as does its Greek ethnē, from which we get the English word “ethnic,” and the Latin gentes, from which we get “Gentiles.”
So, an equally valid way of describing Epiphany would be something like “the revelation of Christ to the nations.” To appreciate the full force of what’s happening as the wise men bring their gifts from afar, it helps to understand the biblical view of how “the nations” fit into the grand scheme of God’s plan of salvation.
To go back to the beginning: the creation story in the Book of Genesis envisions humanity as essentially one, insofar as all are descended from the same first parents, Adam and Eve. Later, after the Flood, all human beings are able to trace their descent back to Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In symbolic terms, this common descent signifies the common humanity that binds us all together, regardless of race, language, nation, or culture.
Human sin rends this primordial unity asunder. The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 describes how the peoples of the earth try to build a tower up to heaven. Because of the pride and presumption of this project, God confuses their language and scatters them over the earth. In symbolic terms, the story signifies the estrangement of different nations and peoples from one another as they lose a common language and lapse into mutual incomprehension and suspicion.
Later on, God calls Abraham out from the nations to be the ancestor of a new people, in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. From this point on, the Old Testament tends to divide the human race into two parts: Israel, the People of God; and the nations, everybody else.
Most of the Old Testament depicts the relationship between Israel and the nations as one of mutual suspicion and hostility. The nations pose a threat to Israel on two counts. First, they’re a political menace. Israel’s existence is always under threat from hostile empires and kingdoms seeking to subjugate God’s people and take possession of their land. Second, the nations present the temptations of paganism and idolatry: a constant threat to Israel’s unique covenant relationship with God. For this reason, the prophets and teachers of Israel are constantly urging separation from the nations to avoid contamination by paganism.
Despite all this, the nations still have a definite place in God’s plan. The Bible never completely loses sight of the original unity of humankind. The purpose of God’s choosing Israel is not to give Israel a privileged place over everybody else, but to make Israel a light to the nations. Ultimately, not Israel alone but all the nations are to share in the blessings of universal peace in God’s kingdom.
Such is the vision expressed in today’s Old Testament reading. Addressing Mount Zion, the prophet Isaiah foretells the nations of the earth and their kings coming to worship God who shall reveal himself in glory: “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” To the Temple mount in Jerusalem camels will come bringing in the wealth of the nations, gold and incense, to show forth the praises of the Lord.
In the New Testament, we see the fulfillment of these prophecies. The old dichotomy between Israel and the nations is overcome in the Church, the expanded People of God, in which all nations have an equal place. Christ commissions his apostles to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. All nations, races, tribes, and tongues of the earth are to be gathered into Christ’s Body, the Church, thus ultimately restoring the original unity of humankind in Christ, the new Adam. Thus, Saint Paul is able to write in this evening’s Epistle of the mystery of Christ, now revealed to the apostles and prophets, is that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promises of Christ in the Gospel.
In this light, we begin to appreciate the full force of the story of the wise men from the East who travel from afar bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the newborn king of the Jews. Matthew’s point is that as soon as Jesus comes into the world, the prophecies begin to be fulfilled. In Christ, the ancient divisions between Jews and Gentiles, and indeed between all races and nations, begin to be transcended, overcome, and healed.
Even though Matthew makes no mention of how many wise men there were, Christian tradition settled on the number three not only because they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but also because the number three corresponds to the three sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—from whom all the peoples of the earth are descended.
By tradition, Shem was the ancestor of the Semitic peoples, Ham of the African peoples, and Japheth of the European peoples. Thus, artistic renderings of the three kings often depict them as belonging to three different races. The symbolic point is that when Christ is born, all the nations and peoples of the earth come together and unite in the worship of the one true God, bringing the different gifts that wonderfully reflect their continuing diversity.
In consequence of this wonderful symbolism, let me urge two points of practical significance. First, the Church must always be a place where people of all races and ethnicities are welcome to come and offer their gifts. Our unity in Christ is not uniformity but rather unity in diversity. Our life together in the universal Church is immeasurably enriched by the different gifts offered by all the different cultures of the world. We need always to guard against the temptation to feel superior or look down our nose at the expression of cultural traditions other than our own in the Church’s life and worship.
Second, even in the midst of this wonderful diversity, our common membership in Christ’s Body, the Church, gives us a shared identity with our fellow Christians the world over that transcends all differences of nationality, politics, culture, and language. It’s a good thing to be devoted members of our families, conscientious employees in our workplaces, enthusiastic participants in the civic life of our communities, and patriotic citizens of our country. By fulfilling our duties and responsibilities in each of these spheres we contribute to the good life that God intends for his creation. We just need to remember that our identity as Christians, members of a global fellowship of faith, always takes first priority over all other claims upon our loyalty and allegiance.