Father Donald Senior, CP, Chicago Catholic, December 16, 2020
Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3; 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
Malka Simkovich, who directs the Catholic-Jewish studies program at Catholic Theological Union, has documented the tendencies toward universalism in the writings of Judaism during the period roughly parallel with the life of Jesus and the formation of the New Testament. Often people contrast what is termed the ethnocentric tendency of Judaism with the universal aspirations of Christianity. In short, Christianity is expansive and inclusive; Judaism, exclusive and focused inward. But, as is often the case, such generalizations can distort the truth that is more complex.
Both Judaism and Christianity, then and now, are concerned with their own identities as religious peoples, identities shaped by certain traditions, practices and values each community considers essential. Taking Catholicism as an example, we have traditions and creeds and a host of practices that identify us as Catholics, just as Judaism does.
And, as Simkovich’s research shows and as the Old Testament itself testifies, the people of Israel were also interested in the “nations” beyond their borders. The Bible realized from the start that the God of Israel was not a tribal God only concerned with his chosen people. He was the God of Creation, the God of the Universe, who sustained and cared for all the peoples of the earth.
That is the spirit of the first reading from Isaiah for this remarkable feast of Epiphany. The prophet portrays God’s people Israel as a “light to the nations,” a light reflective of the “glory of the Lord that shines upon you.” That light draws the nations out of darkness, and they come to share with Israel the light of God’s radiant beauty. The responsorial Psalm 72 echoes the same expansive vision: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you!”
The question is how to balance the sense of identity that is essential for any family or people with an openness and spirit of respect and welcome to those beyond our borders. If we develop feelings of arrogance about our own virtue or status and end up with contempt for those beyond our boundaries, then our identity has become warped.
The author of the book of Jonah sensed this in portraying the prophet Jonah as having contempt for those foreign Ninevites, and becoming annoyed when God calls him to preach to those traditional opponents. Lo and behold, the Ninevites repent at Jonah’s reluctant peaching. In the wryly humorous ending to the story, God chides Jonah for being depressed at his own success.
Of course, the key reading for this feast is the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel. These sky gazers from the east (in Nineveh’s general direction, no less) come to Bethlehem to offer their gifts to the newborn king, Jesus. Ironically, they glimpse who Jesus is, while Herod and his Jerusalem court turn hostile.
Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew is the one with a deep appreciation for the Jewish identity and heritage of Jesus, and wants to communicate that to the readers of his narrative. At the same time, he wants to open up the vista of his Jewish Christian community to welcome the “nations,” that is, the Gentiles who are coming into the community in growing numbers.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the apostles are sent to “all nations” extending the news of God’s boundless love to the world and thereby echoing Isaiah’s description of Israel as a “light to the nations.”
We live in at a time when we seem to be divided more than ever. There is mounting mistrust between races and nations and factions. There is less tolerance or appreciation for those seeking refuge in our midst. Political, economic and social factors driving our concern for boundaries can be complex and difficult to resolve.
But as Christians we cannot forget the deep conviction that the God who loved us into existence is the God of all humanity. Nor can we overlook that the mission of Jesus, built on the traditions of God’s own people, was to bring the message of God’s reconciling and healing love to all in need. That is the joy and challenge of the feast of the Epiphany.
Thi article first appeared HERE.