Writing Epiphany: Reflections on Isaiah 60:1-6 for Epiphany Sunday

And the wealth will include gold, of course, the precious metal that has for millennia defined wealth, along with frankincense, costly perfume, a very symbol of luxury and power. And there will be huge flocks of animals from Kedar and Nebaioth, many of which will end up as "acceptable" on the sacred sacrificial altars of a refurbished temple (Is. 60:6-7). In short, Jerusalem will be the center of the world, wealthy, pious, and honored by all.

And from that scenario, Matthew created his scene of Magi bringing these same gifts, gold and frankincense, along with myrrh, the burial spice that will recur in the sadness of the end of the life of the child. I presume the Magi become kings in the memory, because "kings" will come to Jerusalem, and it may be that to have kings pay homage to the baby is a darn sight more potent an image than a passel of dusty magicians doing so. And the rising light of YHWH in Isaiah becomes the rising star of Bethlehem, now leading the Magi to the child, rather than leading all nations and kings to Jerusalem. And Isaiah's "glorious house," the temple of Jerusalem in Isaiah 60:7 becomes the "house" where Jesus lay. It is abundantly clear that Matthew took the framework of Isaiah's poetic portrait of a renewed Jerusalem and used it as a template for his story of Jesus' birth and the visitation of the Magi. And in turn later readers have telescoped and added and imagined differently in hymn and pageant and story. Now we have three kings, with strange and foreign-sounding names, riding on three of Isaiah's camels, each bearing a sacred gift, one of traditional wealth, one of great luxury, and one pointing to a tragic end.

It must be said, I think, that Matthew did no real violence to Isaiah's scene. Both depict a bright light of hope in a world of darkness. Both describe how the powerful will eventually see that all their power and pomp fades in the light of the tiny country, for Isaiah, and the tiny child, for Matthew. Both hope for the light of God to shine on, luring all people to justice and righteousness for all at last. The murderous Herod is fooled; the great kings of the earth will see that real greatness is not to be found in GDP and nuclear throw weight, but in the Torah of YHWH, centered on the peace that passes all human understanding. Yes, the Hebrew Bible still offers us much to ponder and much upon which to chew at Epiphany and throughout the year. So let us chew on together as the year proceeds.

12/23/2014 5:00:00 AM
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