Epiphany, Baptism, Solidarity and Justice, Part 1

Epiphany, Baptism, Solidarity and Justice, Part 1 January 2, 2024


Happy New Year from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries!

This weekend our readings from the gospels are from Matthew and Mark. Let’s begin with Matthew’s story of the epiphany:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 

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When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 

‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler 

who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12) 

The first thing to note is how the author of Matthew appropriates and incorporates a famous Roman mythic event into the narrative of the birth of Jesus to lay the foundation for contrasting Jesus and his kingdom with Caesar and the Pax Romana.

The event that Matthew’s author lifts from Roman storytelling is related to the Julian Star. In July of 44 BCE, a comet appeared in the night sky for seven days. The Romans interpreted it as a sign that the recently assassinated Julius Caesar was divine, and so it came to be known as the Julian Star or the Star of Julius Caesar. Caesar Augustus even put this star on the back of the Roman coins he made to bolster his claim that he was the “son of the Divine Caesar Julius.”

Publius Ovidius Naso wrote in Metamorphoses:

“Then Jupiter, the Father, spoke…”Take up Caesar’s spirit from his murdered corpse, and change it into a star, so that the deified Julius may always look down from his high temple on our Capitol and forum.” He had barely finished, when gentle Venus stood in the midst of the Senate, seen by no one, and took up the newly freed spirit of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air, carried it towards the glorious stars. As she carried it, she felt it glow and take fire, and loosed it from her breast: it climbed higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, shone as a star.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15:745–842)

Here in Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus, the author states that another star (comet) appears, not at a caesar’s death as a token of his divinity, but at Jesus’ birth as confirmation of the claim that this child will grow up to be special too.

But those who follow the star are not Romans. They are the Magi. We’ll unpack that, next.

(Read Part 2)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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