The Mormon Lectionary Project: Epiphany

The Epiphany, Year A

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, 1 Nephi 13:40-42

The Collect: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Contemplating the visit of the magi, the “Three Kings” or “Three Wise Men,” to the infant Messiah can cause us to reflect on our own experience in being led to a knowledge of the Savior. It can also hint at a restoration of ancient truth or ways in the birth of the Messiah.[1]

Though “darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people,” prophecy long pre-dating Christ’s birth assured that “the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee” (KJV, Isa. 60:2). In fact, Isaiah foresaw that in this time of darkness, “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (KJV, Isa. 60:3). This pattern repeats itself in the life of every Christian who comes to know the Savior by faith and who thus continually seeks his glory.

The Resource Center for the Genevan Psalter, Psalm 72

His rising light brings justice in its wake. “He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor” (NRSV, Ps. 72:4). Gentiles will be brought in as “all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (NRSV, Ps. 72:11). The godly justice meted out by his righteousness will be his calling card:

For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight. (NRSV, Ps. 72:12-14)

What more desperate need could there be than for this message of the Savior’s mission to be brought far and wide, not just to the Jews of Jesus’ immediate surroundings, but to the “Gentiles” of all nations of the earth and all of humanity? Paul rejoiced, as must we, that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (NRSV, Eph. 3:6). Having seen Christ’s light pierce through his own overzealous darkness, Paul then worked tirelessly the remainder of his days to bring the Gospel to both Jew and Gentile: “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (NRSV, Eph. 3:8-10).

May we be inspired by Paul’s diligence in this endeavor! Let us never lose sight of Christ’s new “star at its rising” in our lives so that we may always be able to find the Messiah and pay homage to him, following the wise men’s example (Matt. 2:1-12). One of the wise men brought myrrh oil as a gift for the infant Savior:

The myrrh oil, kept in the holy of holies for anointing kings and high priests, had been hidden away in the time of Josiah, during the great changes in the temple. This too had to be restored for there to be an anointed one, a Messiah. No high priest of the second temple was anointed; the description of Joshua being made high priest in the second temple mentions only his vestments, but not his anointing (Zech. 3.1-5). Jesus, however, said he was fulfilling the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because he has anointed me . . .’ (Luke 4.21, quoting Isa. 61.1), and at his birth he was declared to be ‘Christ the LORD’, ‘the Anointed One’ (Luke 2:11). (Barker, 27)

Each of us, though certainly not in a position to restore the anointing myrrh oil to the Great High Priest, can and must join the wise men and “do our part” in paying him homage and bringing his message to the world.

Gloucester Cathedral Choir — In the Bleak Midwinter

Our “part” as disciples of the New Covenant, and as Latter-day Saints, is to find him and then preach him. The Bible and The Book of Mormon together “shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved” (1 Ne. 13:40). Gentile and Jew, united as disciples in the New Covenant, “shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth” (1 Ne. 13:41). This Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. It is now up to us to receive him in our lives and bring his message to the nations.

—————

[1] Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story (SPCK, London: 2008), pp.115-23. Barker suggests, thought-provokingly, that the magi, the fabled wise men, might have been priests after the order of Melchizedek returning from exile for a brief visit to the land of the long-corrupted second temple dominated by the Levitical priesthood and its “high priest.” The following rather lengthy selection is quoted from pages 119 to 123 of her book Christmas: The Original Story because of its possible interest to a Mormon audience:

“Jesus was the new Adam, the new creation, opening the way back to Eden and restoring the true temple. All these themes are in the New Testament, and so proclaiming the birth of the new Adam and the great high priest could well be the original meaning of the magi. A Hebrew version of Matthew would have had wordplay here, since ‘magi from the east’ is written in the same way as ‘magi from ancient times.’ The word miqqedem can mean ‘from ancient times’ or ‘from the east.’ The Garden of Eden was planted miqqedem, the LORD, the Holy One was miqqedem (Hab. 1.12), and the Lady would give birth to the great shepherd of Israel miqqedem (Mic. 5.3-4). The magi also came miqqedem, and so were a sign for Hebrew Christians that the ancient ways were being restored.

Of special interest is the myrrh, because the myrrh anointing oil had ‘disappeared’ from the holy of holies in the seventh century BCE. The perfumed oil representing Wisdom (Ben Sira 24.15), whence the figurative language in the Enochic Apocalypse of Weeks, that Wisdom was abandoned in the time of Josiah (when the oil was hidden away), and the priesthood lost their vision (1 En. 93.8). The oil — known as ‘the dew of resurrection’ — had anointed the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and transformed them into sons of God. The temple link was known in the early Church and appears in an Epiphany Sermon of Pope Leo the Great. Interpreting the three gifts of the magi, he wrote: ‘He offers myrrh, who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature.’ The uniting of divine and human had been the mystery of the myrrh oil in the holy of holies, the ‘birth’ of Immanuel, and it was Pope Leo whose letter on the one person and two natures of Christ was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.

Justin, a native of Palestine writing in the mid-second century, said the magi came from Arabia, but his voice has been largely unheard, and the magi are invariably linked to Persia. . . . Exactly what Justin meant by ‘Arabia’, however, is not known. Herod was an Arabian but he came from Edom, and Josephus said that Petra was the capital of Arabia. It was not today’s Arabia. After his conversion, Paul went to Arabia (Gal. 1.17), and his visit may help to identify the magi. He came back better informed about his new faith and able to explain that Christianity was rooted in something older than the law of Moses. Who instructed him? Paul went on to teach that Christianity antedated the Sinai covenant, and was based on righteousness through faith. Abraham was the great example, and his true heirs were righteous through faith. The righteous have proved to be a significant group in the nativity story (Luke 1.17, 75; Matt. 1.19), and Abraham and his heirs were important for Zechariah and his son John (Luke 1.73; Matt. 3.9).

Jewish tradition, recorded in the fourth century CE, but presumably not invented at that time, knew that many priests of the first temple had settled in ‘Arabia’ after Josiah’s temple purges in the late seventh century BCE. The enigmatic oracle in Isaiah 21.13-15 was about these priests who had lived in the Forest of Lebanon, that is, Solomon’s temple complex (1 Kings 7.2) and then fled to ‘the thickets of Arabia.’ This implies that descendants of the older priesthood were still in ‘Arabia’ in when Paul went there, people who held the Enochic view that the second temple was impure. There were Jews from ‘Arabia’ in the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2.11); perhaps there had been Jews from Arabia in 7 BCE for the feast of Tabernacles, when the star was seen. Perhaps they included some of the descendants of the older priesthood, the priests miqqedem, especially as the traditional way to depict the magi in nativity icons is as three high priests [indicated by a curious top-knot head-dress].

After his time in Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus, which was the code name for Qumran — or so it would seem. The foundation document of the community described them as the men of the new covenant in the land of Damascus who had access to the fountain of living waters. They are usually identified as Essenes. They were a priestly community who had rejected the impurity of the second temple, the righteous who were hoping to return to Eden and be restored again to ‘all the glory of Adam.’ The Old Greek translation of Amos, made in Alexandria towards the end of the second century BCE, has some interesting differences from the Hebrew that reflect the sectarian polemic of the time. Amos’s prophecy of destruction, the shepherd taking away two legs or an ear from the mouth of a lion, was explained as the LORD taking away those who dwell in Samaria and ‘those priests in Damascus’ (Amos 3.12b). Now there were in Alexandria at that time a large number of Samaritans, and at a later date, people very like the Qumran community, presumably ‘those priests in Damascus.’ We know about the latter — the Therapeuts — because Philo wrote about them, and about Qumran because the scrolls have been found. But were there other such communities elsewhere? Josephus said that the Essenes lived ‘in large numbers in every town,’ and had a network to support members when they travelled. Were there similar settlements in ‘Arabia,’ the home of the magi and the spiritual heirs of the ancient priesthood? Did Paul receive instruction from them about his new faith? These questions cannot be answered, but the evidence suggests they should be asked.

Philo, who died in 50 CE, gave two interesting descriptions of magi, showing how an educated Jew of his time understood the word. ‘Among the Persians there is the order of the magi, who silently make research into the facts of nature to gain knowledge of the truth and through visions clearer than speech, give and receive the revelations of divine excellency.’ ‘Now the true magic, the scientific vision by which the facts of nature are presented in a clearer light, is felt to be a fit object of reverence and ambition, and is carefully studied not only by ordinary persons, but by kings and the greatest kings, so much so that it is said that no one [in Persia] is promoted to the throne unless he has first been admitted into the caste of the magi.’ Jews could also be called magi; there was a Jewish false prophet and magus on Cyprus (Acts 13.6). The question is: could other Jews who put their knowledge to better use be called magi?

The first group to consider would be the Essenes. They were a conservative priestly group opposed to the current temple regime in Jerusalem, they studied prophecy and were themselves prophets, they were astronomers, and they were looking for the Messiah [or Messiahs]. They were respected by Herod and would have had easy access to him without fear of his wrath. But if they were Essenes, why did they need to ask him where the king of the Jews had been born? Herod was an Edomite and so did not know the Hebrew prophecies, but the Essenes were noted for their study of prophecy. One answer might be that they knew a different version of the Bethlehem prophecy in Micah 5.2. Instead of ‘from you shall come forth for me one who is to be the ruler in Israel’ the Hebrew text found at Qumran has ‘from you one shall not come forth to be the ruler in Israel,’ l’ instead of ly.

Herod told the magi to find the child and then return to say where he was. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so ‘they departed to their own country by another way.’ Between the monastery of Mar Saba and Bethlehem there is the monastery of Dosi [St Theodosius], built on the site of an older foundation marking the cave where the magi stayed on their way home from Bethlehem. This suggests that they were going to Arabia, rather than to Persia.”

Comments

  1. Jason A. Kerr says:

    Thanks, John. I love the Margaret Barker excerpt at the end. I’ve also bookmarked your link to the Genevan Psalter site, which is pretty fantastic.

  2. For Epiphany:

  3. Wow. John, this was a magnificent thing to read today. Thank you.

  4. You’ve sincerely given my heart something it very much needed today- and which may feed me for the next while. I’m very grateful. Thank you.

  5. Thanks all! The three wise men are much bigger in the Anglican tradition than in Mormonism, unfortunately (and senselessly). My daughters really loved celebrating them during our years living in the UK and came to love “We Three Kings” as one of their favorite Christmas songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzPbB96NLr4

  6. J. Stapley says:

    The oil. John, you know how to bring it. Thank you.

  7. Thank you, John, for such a rich set of readings. I love the collect and the music as well as your informed discussion. This deserves a wide readership.

  8. John, the wise men have been on my mind a great deal this year. I have had also had a few opportunities to speak about this part of the nativity a few times over advent. The intermittent visibility of the star coupled with Herod’s role in finding Jesus has reminded me that coming to Christ is rarely straightforward and, in fact, may involve help from unexpected places. Thank you for this reflection.

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