Jesus was Jewish. His mother, Mary, and Joseph were Jewish. Like the Jews of their day, they observed all the commandments of the Old Testament and worshiped in the Temple. In today’s gospel, the magi call Jesus, “The King of the Jews”, and the New Testament affirms that He is the Messiah the Jewish people had long awaited. When Jesus began preaching, all His followers were Jewish including the apostles.
Why, then, are we Christians and not Jews?
This is a good question that young people in particular often ask. Though it would take more than an eight minute sermon to answer it fully, we can discuss it as it relates to the feast we are celebrating today - the Epiphany of the Lord.
The simple answer as to why we are Christians rather than Jews is that we believe in Jesus. Christianity revolves around the person of Jesus Christ. All the rules, practices and teachings that we as Catholics observe center on coming to know, love and serve Him better. Therefore, we are Christians because we believe that Jesus Christ is more than a prophet or wise teacher. We believe that He is God and, most importantly, that we can have a relationship with Him.
The Jews have always been God’s chosen people. From all the nations on the earth, He selected them to be the people who would experience His special care and love. To them alone, He revealed His commandments and worked miracles to bring them to the Promised Land. Why did He do that? So that the other nations would see how good and wise the people of Israel were and come to believe in the one, true God. Our Heavenly Father’s dream was to make Israel a model of his power and love so that other nations would abandon their pagan idols and be drawn into His loving embrace. Through the prophet Isaiah God says in today’s first reading: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”
In particular, God promised to send a Messiah to the people of Israel. He would be a just king and ruler whose kingdom would never end. Not only would he rule over Israel, but his dominion would extend over the whole world as we hear proclaimed in today’s responsorial psalm: “May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Through the Messiah, God’s dream to unite all peoples and nations into one kingdom of peace and justice would be fulfilled.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is this Messiah. He is the one whom all the prophets of the Old Testament foretold as we read in today’s gospel: “And you, Bethlehem,...from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” He is the King of the Jews whose birth was heralded by the star. At the same time, He is born to rule over all peoples - Jews and non-Jews alike as Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading: “...the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) are co-heirs...in the promise in Christ Jesus…” Jesus is the Messiah who unites people of every race, nation, language and way of life into the one Kingdom of God.
The word “epiphany” means “revelation”. On this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as Messiah not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations. The Magi, or “Wise Men” are not Jews. Because they do not have the Bible to guide them, they relied on the stars to try to understand God’s will. Nonetheless, they receive the news of Jesus’ birth with great joy. Upon seeing Him, they fall down in worship and offer Him gifts. They recognize that He is the King not only for the Jews but for them as well. And we can believe that when they left Bethlehem they stopped looking for guidance from stars and began to look to Jesus instead for true wisdom and knowledge.
We rejoice today because God offers to us non-Jews all the blessings He first gave to His chosen people. In a real sense, through Jesus, we are made citizens of the new Israel, with all the rights and privileges that go with it. Now, the question is, will we make use of all those rights and privileges? Will we accept Jesus as our Lord and Messiah? Will we live by the light He offers us or will we prefer the dim light of other stars? Will we follow Jesus or choose other masters? The Magi risked everything to follow the star to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem to see for themselves the newborn King of the Jews. Are we willing to leave our comfort zone, to change our attitudes and risk everything to let Jesus rule over our lives?
The word “catholic” means “universal”. We are Catholics because we believe that Jesus’ Kingdom is universal, embracing all people. There is no person no matter what his or her race, religion or language whom God does not love and want to save. It is up to us, now, to take up Israel’s mission of being a light to the nations. We are to live in such a way that others notice our goodness and ask about the God we worship. God’s dream now is to make each of us stars leading others to Jesus so that His Kingdom can conquer the world one heart at a time and so that everyone can come to know the peace that only Jesus, the King of the Jews and Savior of the World, can give.