The Jews: our ‘elder brothers’ in the faith

Epiphany of the Lord

First Reading: Is 60:1-6

Second Reading: Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6

Gospel Reading: Mt 2:1-12

This Sunday, the Church celebrates the Epiphany. Before Vatican II, it was always celebrated January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. Now, in Canada, we celebrate it the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, which, this year, happens to be January 6.

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek epihaneia, meaning “manifestation.” Of course, God had manifested the Incarnation to humans already: first, for centuries, through the prophets, and then, on Christmas night, through the angels who appeared to the shepherds.

However, those manifestations had all been to the Jews, the people God had chosen from all the peoples on earth to be peculiarly his own. In contrast, the manifestation the Church celebrates today was to the Gentiles.

The magi were probably astrologers, magicians, and dream-interpreters from a priestly caste in Persia. We call them “kings” because of Isaiah’s prophecy: “kings” shall come to the “brightness” of Israel’s “dawn.” We assume that there are three from the number of their gifts (“gold, frankincense, and myrrh”). Legend names them Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior.

Today, then, the Church celebrates the fact that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same Body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

God loves humans, whom he created, with the love of a Person, says Pope Benedict XVI. “His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her -- but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race.”

After Adam and Eve’s fall, God did not abandon us “to the domain of death,” as the Church notes in her Fourth Eucharistic Prayer. “Time and again,” he promised to be our God and to make us his people, renewing his covenant with us every time we broke our word.

There were five “old” covenants: with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. With each one, God “broadened the focus of his dealings with the human family,” as Scott Hahn points out. The first covenant was with a couple, the second with an extended family, the third with a tribe, the fourth with a nation, and the fifth with a kingdom.

Now there is the “new and everlasting” covenant with the whole world. Jesus proclaimed it the night before he died, when he took a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my Blood.”

God kept his part in all the “old” covenants; humans did not. However, as God-made-Man, Jesus Christ kept our part in the “old” covenants for us.

He did it in three ways, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church: by keeping God’s Law down to “the least of the commandments”; by taking upon himself the consequences of our infidelity; and by giving the Law its ultimate, divine interpretation.

Thus Jesus fulfilled all God’s “old” covenants with the Jews and made a “new and everlasting” covenant with the whole world.

Has God rejected the Jews, then? “Of course not!” St. Paul answers in his Letter to the Romans. “Does their stumbling mean that they are forever fallen? Not at all!”

Paul explains that God has “cut off” some of Israel’s branches, as if he prunes the olive tree he has cultivated for so long, and has grafted in some of the Gentiles, like branches of a “wild” olive tree. After “the full number of Gentiles enter in,” he says, “all Israel will be saved.”

“When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,” says the Catechism. To them “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

“Blessed forever be God, Who is over all!”