“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 2:1–12:
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Over the past few weeks, we have all prepared in Advent for the coming of the Christ — in our case, we prepare for the Second Coming by recalling the First. This story about Herod the Great, the king of Judea under Roman occupation, gives us a glimpse of the flip side of that preparation. Herod gives the story of rejection, of refusing the Lord’s great gift, one that we occasionally play out in our own lives in attachment to sin.
In today’s second reading, Paul writes to the Ephesians of “the stewardship of God’s grace.” In ancient Israel, the judges and the kings had the duty of that stewardship, as Israel was meant to be the steward of salvation for the world. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds Israel of that mission: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” Darkness covered the rest of the earth, but God’s light shone on Israel, which was meant to share it. Instead, the kings of Israel chose to partake in the worldly darkness in search of its own power separate from God, and lost the favor of the Lord as a result.
Herod becomes the antithesis of the mission of stewardship for God. His family converted to Judaism for political reasons; Herod sought out the kingdom of Judea by paying homage to pagan Rome. Instead of being a steward of the Lord, Herod became a steward of the self-styled god-emperors in Rome, and ruled on their behalf. By the time the wise men come to Jerusalem, Herod had become powerful in an alliance with Augustus and jealously guarded his power.
The idea that some old and nearly forgotten prophecy could unseat his house from the throne would have seemed absurd to Herod, but the threat could very well have been real — if the people believed it. Herod already had spent decades fighting zealots, even while building the Israelites the second temple. He would have had no desire to give them a rallying point by which to remove him and his sons from power. Herod acted on his own desires, and refused to even contemplate the idea that Israel’s true royal line had returned. All he saw was a temporal and superstitious potential threat to his power, and therefore he planned to deal with it ruthlessly.
Is that not the nature of sin? After all, we know more than Herod did in those days. We know that Jesus survived the attempt to kill him and the Massacre of the Innocents, and not only confounded Herod but also his son Antipas as well. Still, we resist His coming — in our hearts, and in our lives. Why is that?
In part, we also see the Lord as a threat. Like Herod, Jesus challenges our concept of power — the power to do what we want with our lives. The practice of self-control and adherence to the Gospels requires discipline and at least some level of self-denial when it comes to temptations. We have to put our own selfish needs and desires aside and conform ourselves to the will of God. That requires us to acknowledge a higher power, and to rely on it for help in overcoming our own fallen natures to succeed.
When we attach ourselves to sin, we become little Herods of our own kingdoms, refusing to accept true authority. We stop being stewards of our own selves, which we are to consider the temple of the Holy Spirit, and instead we become self-indulgent tyrants … as well as slaves to the temptations that surround us. We are called to stewardship no less than the priests, prophets, and kings in the history of salvation, which is why we share in all of those offices through the Holy Spirit.
In fact, either choice involves bowing to an authority of one kind or another. For Herod, the Advent of the Christ gave him a choice which he intended to serve: the Romans, or God. Choosing the latter would have made Herod’s position difficult, to be sure, but that was the purpose of the kingship of Israel. He chose the pagan oppressors in Rome to preserve his opulent and debauched life for just a little longer, and in the end it was only a very short time indeed.
For us, the choice of authority is no less fraught than Herod’s. Do we choose to serve the authority of the Lord, in whose will we can become sons and daughters and heir to salvation? Or do we choose to serve the authority of the flesh and of the popular culture because it’s more pleasurable, more comfortable, or just not as much work?
Make no mistake: we have to choose, and as Bob Dylan once wrote, we have to serve somebody. That is the dilemma we are presented in Advent. We know the choice, and we know the consequences. The only real question is whether we choose salvation or destruction. Herod chose the latter, and eventually discovered that he could not save himself. Let us choose our Savior as joyously as we celebrate Advent in these times.
Update: As a few commenters have correctly reminded me, Herod was king of Judea, not Israel. I’ve corrected it in two places above.