The traditional way of interpreting the readings for this Sunday’s Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is to highlight the significance of the “magi from the east.”
Commentators tend to make much of the fact that these men (typically assumed to be three in number based on the famous trifecta of gifts they bring) were obviously not Jewish, and yet they came to find “the newborn king of the Jews” so that they might “do him homage.” The implication is that the power of the Incarnation was so remarkable that the wisest of the pagans rushed to see for themselves the great goodness God had wrought. They are the literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, found in the first reading, about how “the wealth of nations shall be brought to” Jerusalem.
There is nothing wrong with this interpretation, and it certainly tells us something about the work of God in the Mystery of the Incarnation that we just commemorated on Christmas. Indeed, God’s act of becoming flesh is transformative for the whole world and the magi from the east rightly come to do homage before the newborn son of God. We could all learn a lot from their example, for it is frequently indicting to ask if we are truly seeking Jesus with the same vigor the magi demonstrated and to inquire whether we genuinely do Jesus homage with our lives.
Still, the thing that I find remarkable about this feast’s readings is the flipside of what the traditional reading highlights. While the magi get a lot of attention as the first Gentiles to recognize the majesty of the Christ child, the other side of that coin is that they were coming to find the king of the Jews. In other words, we pay attention to the fact that the magi were Gentiles because Jesus is Jewish.
This is a very important point for Christians, and especially Catholics, to appreciate, because as the Second Vatican Council stressed, “the beginnings of [the Catholic Church’s] faith” are found in Israel, God’s chosen people, and continues to “draw sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoot, the Gentiles” (Nostra Aetate, no. 4).
Thus, the steadfast fidelity of the Jewish people to the covenant was essential to God’s plan for salvation, which led to the Incarnation and, ultimately, the Catholic Church. Our salvation—which is to say, the salvation of the whole world—depends so much on the Jewish people that every Christian must confess that with Judaism there is no Christ.
While this all should be quite obvious, there are numerous illustrations throughout history proving that it is not. From the follies of supersessionism to Christians’ complicity in pogroms and the Holocaust itself, plenty in the church have seen their spiritual heritage in the magi rather than the Jewish people, to horrific effect.
Certainly, “the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself” (Nostra Aetate, no. 4) and so “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ,” as St. Paul stressed in this Sunday’s second reading. But more than that, it is not as though the Jewish people’s role in the salvation of the world stopped the day Christ was born. On the contrary, the Jewish people continue to provide a witness to the goodness of God and the most appropriate human response to that goodness precisely in their Jewish faith.
This point was made abundantly clear in the 2015 document, “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable,” issued by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Among other things, the document stressed that salvation comes through Christ alone, and yet simultaneously does not exclude the Jewish people who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah today (nos. 35–36). As a result, the document insisted, “the Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a manner different from that to other people of other religions and world views” and ultimately proclaimed that there should not be “any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews” (no. 40).
This is a profound reminder of the pride of place the Jewish people hold in the plan of salvation, the very same pride of place that prompted the magi from the east to come searching for the newborn king of the Jews.
While embracing this reminder might helpfully encourage a new pursuit of a deeper understanding of Judaism among today’s Christians, perhaps the greatest impact it could have would be in inspiring Catholics to heed the Vatican’s call to participate “in jointly combatting all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism” (no. 47).
At a time when antisemitism is on the rise in the United States—fed in part by both the left and right ends of the political spectrum, albeit in distinct ways—a newfound commitment to the wellbeing of our Jewish brothers and sisters might just be the best gift we could bring to do homage this Epiphany. At the very least, it ought to be seen as a true moral calling for all who say they recognize Jesus as the magi first did.