Epiphany – How God Has Chosen to be Present

The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage),
James Tissot, 1886-1894 (Brooklyn Museum)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Epiphany of the Lord
Letter to the Ephesians 3:2–6
January 8, 2023

The readings for the feast of the Epiphany are the same every year. This reasoning is obvious for the Gospel of the Magi, but the other readings are perceptively chosen as well. The Letter to the Ephesians speaks of how the light of Jesus can be with us today as much as when he was in the manger in Bethlehem. We will repeat the commentary from last year but with a different conclusion. The word of God is alive and can illuminate every time and place.

We must remember a few things to start. Most scholars would agree that it was written by a disciple of St. Paul after his death. As we have many times noted, this would not be deceitful as his readers would have known that Paul was dead. As we saw with our reading of Titus at Christmas, this allowed the author and indeed the leaders who followed Paul to show that they were in continuity with him. Who followed the original apostles as leaders was a real problem and Ephesians is one of the clearest statements on how and why the Catholic Church developed.

It was written to a predominately Gentile audience to show that they were part of God’s plan from the very beginning. They would have had difficulty understanding the very Jewish concept of creation. That is that an all-powerful and loving God made the world for the good of those who would inhabit it. Pagans would have been more familiar with competing forces, rarely benevolent, which would compete for power and would need to be humored. These are the powers, dominions, and names that the author will mention as inferior beings throughout the letter. At the very beginning of the letter, he writes:

God put this power to work in Christ
when he raised him from the dead
and seated him at his right hand
in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority
and power and dominion,
and above every name that is named,
not only in this age but also in the age to come.
And he has put all things under his feet
and has made him the head over all things
for the church which is his body,
the fullness of him who fills all in all

(Eph 1:20–23)

There is much that would have caught the attention of Gentiles here. The creator God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him power over all things for all times. No other “god” or spirit, power or force could supplant Jesus Christ. No power they could ever encounter could conquer him or even separate them from him. This reflects Paul’s statement in Romans 8:

What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

(Ro 8:35)

Romans was written to a Jewish audience. Ephesians takes the same message to a Gentile one.

Shocking for everyone would have been his statement that he was given this power “for the Church.” For the authors of Ephesians and Colossians, the Church was not an accident of history nor a temporary adaptation to the times but was part of the LORD’s plan from the beginning. He also follows Paul in his very concrete and Jewish understanding of the Church. This is the Body, a real physical organism and not a metaphor.

He develops this idea further in the second chapter:

Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God.

(Eph 2:20–22)

Jesus is the cornerstone, that on which the structure, the physical reality, not of brick and mortar but flesh and blood, rests. It is in us that Jesus lives, we are his dwelling place, and the letter simply assumes that the Gentiles are part of it.

As this is a physical reality, it is an institution, and an institution requires structure and indeed a hierarchy. Speaking as Paul the author states that he, Paul, was given this role of leadership by the gift of God for the benefit of the People. He is thus justified in calling it “stewardship.” He has spoken of mystery before in this letter:

With all wisdom and insight,
he has made known to us the mystery of his will,
according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
as a plan for the fullness of time,
to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.

(Eph 1:8–10)

For all eternity, God has been working in the world so that when the time came Jesus would come and bring all things and people, including Gentiles, together under his leadership and in his Church.

The letter shifts here. It is not only to Paul that this stewardship has been entrusted but to “holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Like Paul, it is a gift that must be received and indeed can be given only in the Spirit.

This may have been difficult for some of the Gentiles to accept. Why was this not shared with the great oracles, seers and indeed philosophers? Why was it given to uneducated and unimportant men? The author as St. Paul emphasizes that it was because this was God’s plan, and he does not need to consult with us.

The result however is that it is offered to all people not only to the Jews who were first entrusted with it. This is more effective in the Greek than in our translation.

that the Gentiles are coheirs,
members (syssomes) of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus
through the gospel.

(Eph 3:6)

The word that he uses for “members” is syssomes. It is a neologism that is found nowhere else in Greek literature and could be more accurately translated as “co-members.” This joins the more conventional and standard “coheirs” and” copartners.” Each of the words he uses start with the prefix “Syn” which means co- or together e.g., synagogue. Because of what Jesus has done we are all able to join together in his body and be his presence in the world.

The Church in Brooklyn has changed dramatically after COVID. Many people have left the city or have just not come back to Church. We have seen this at St. Charles, but our community has been transient for quite some time, and we have always been blessed with new parishioners. Other parishes have seen a more dramatic drop in numbers and particularly if they do not have rental income, are in considerable financial difficulty. Also, COVID and aging has reduced the number of priests available for parish work. Bishop Brennan and his leadership team are addressing the consequences of all these items and will have to make very drastic changes. Although some parishes will be more directly affected, we will all have to make some changes to remain relevant.

The letter to the Ephesians tells us why this is important. The Church is the way God has chosen to be present in the world. This must always be in our minds and hearts. We are fortunate that this year our gospel readings in Ordinary, green, time will be from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Of all the gospel writers he is the one most concerned about building a common church from diverse peoples. He has not provided a guide or a handbook, but the principles for building the church that answers the call of Jesus to be “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:20–23)