The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage), James Tissot, 1886-1894 (Brooklyn Museum)
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Feast of the Epiphany
January 3, 2021
The first reading for the feast of the Epiphany is standard and doesn’t change every year. You may find previous commentaries for 2019 (Jan. 6, 2019) and 2020 (Jan. 5, 2020). As Isaiah speaks today of light and salvation, it is a perfect selection for Epiphany. It also, as we have seen over the years, contains many images and thoughts which give it a certain complexity. Reviewing it every year reveals what I have learned about the First Testament over the previous year and how it can be applied to our immediate situation.
There are some elements which however are central and constant. Three people used or were given the name Isaiah. A more complete background of the three Isaiahs may be found in the commentary for December 13, 2020. Let us however review the highlights. First Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and was an active prophet between roughly 700 and 695 BC., second Isaiah lived in Babylon after the people had been brought into captivity around 540 BC and third Isaiah had returned to Jerusalem and wrote around 515 BC.
They could use the same name because they shared several key ideas. They thought that their God, the LORD, was always more than a tribal deity but the God of all peoples. He has chosen them as his own special people and formed a covenant with them. This covenant was mutual, he would lead and protect them, but they had responsibilities as well. Chief among them was to treat each other justly. All three of the Isaiahs knew that the LORD would chastise them when they disobeyed him. This disobedience is not only in worshiping false gods but in injustice. They also recognized that the Jewish people were chosen to bring all people to worship the LORD. Therefore, this passage is chosen for Epiphany. There are many selections from first and second Isaiah which could be chosen to illustrate this, to use only two:
In days to come(Is 2:2–3)
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant(Is 49:6–7)
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
Let us now look at today’s reading:
Some Jews did return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and Jewish life. It has not gone well. We need not question the sincerity the Assyrians, but they were far away. They viewed the Jews as their colonial administration. They understood that they would need a temple, but it was not their primary concern. Isaiah, following the inspiration of his predecessors, first examined the attitude and behavior of his own people. Some of them would have thought that they rebuilt the temple and arranged for worship and the customary religious practices to continue, what more was needed?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:(Is 58:6–8)
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
This was meaningless without justice. He harangues the people for several more chapters creating an ever-darker vision but then, in the passage we read today, he sings:
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come,(Is 60:1)
the glory of the Lord shines upon you
If the people are just, the Glory of the Lord will be shown from Jerusalem to the whole world.
Nations shall come to your light,(Is 60:3)
and kings to the brightness of your dawn
This will have several effects:
The Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world. Only a minority of the Jew in Babylon returned to Jerusalem but more tellingly, several centuries before the exile to Babylon, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and dispersed the people throughout the world. (721 BC) It was the call of the Messiah to bring all Jews, including these 10 tribes, back together again.
Your sons shall come from far away,(Is 60:4)
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
The restoration of the temple is important, but to be truly a part of distinctly Jewish history, it must include the restoration of the Jewish people. This temple will be however not only be for the Jews but for all people. This we have seen in passages from first and second Isaiah quoted above but there is a different emphasis.
Because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,(Is 60:5)
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
Third Isaiah sees the participation of the nations not as collaboration but servitude This is shown more clearly later in the chapter.
For the people or kingdom shall perish(Is 60:12)
that does not serve you;
those nations shall be utterly destroyed.
We can see here a great danger. When people have been oppressed, a utopian vision can be subverted by the desire for revenge. The broader message of the Old Testament is one of relationship, restoration, and deeper union, yet when people are disappointed and discouraged that can be obscured or even reversed. Here we see a universal call reduced to religious nationalism. The poetry is marvelous, but in order not to be seduced by it, it is good to remember a wise principal of Bible interpretation “The best interpreter of scripture is scripture’ Let us then end with an injunction of the original Isaiah: learn to do good. make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)