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.
The story of the magi is universally known, part of our Christmas season in the form of nativity sets and popular entertainment. Traditional Christmas carols such as “We Three Kings” celebrate their insight, commitment, and worship. Their gifts teach us well-known lessons about adoration of Jesus Christ, too; as put in The Nativity Story, “gold for the King of Kings, frankincense for the priest of priests, myrrh for the sacrifice.”
Interestingly, though, the scriptures say nothing about there being a specific number of magi, nor that the visit came at the precise time of Jesus’ birth, although this scripture is routinely depicted in those manners. It’s been assumed that there were three wise men because of the three gifts mentioned, but there may have been more gifts and more wise men. Some Eastern traditions put the number at twelve, for instance. Their names (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar) also come from an oral tradition of later centuries. Their identities as kings developed in a similar manner; scripture uses the word “magi,” which means teachers and learned people, not royalty (and not magicians either).
These expansions of a relatively short and singular scriptural passage (the magi are only mentioned in Matthew) shows a deep desire of people to know more about them, to identify more with the magi and their journey. And why not? We should want to identify more with the magi, with those who knowingly and wisely worship Christ — those who have undergone a rather painless journey to the Epiphany, in our cases with all of the benefits of hindsight into both the Old and New Testaments and the signs that all point to His coming.
Heck, I’d want to identify with that, too. Where did I put that myrrh, anyway? I had it around here somewhere …
However, we might do better to pay more attention to Herod’s role in this scripture. Unlike the wise men, it’s easy to pin down Herod, whose name and reputation are well known to historians and theologians alike. Herod seized control of Judea by ingratiating himself with Marc Antony, being appointed king by the Roman Senate as an endorsement to seizing it by force, killing at least one of his rivals to the throne. He and his family reportedly converted to Judaism, mainly for political reasons. Herod did build the second Temple but his oppressive rule created much antipathy for Herod among the Judeans, especially his connections to Rome.
Herod, in the eyes of Matthew, would have been more of a wiseguy than a wise man. The juxtaposition of the magi to Herod in this passage makes the contrast even more stark. Here are learned men, trekking through the wilderness on the sheer basis of faith in God and His sign, meeting with the ruler who exploits the name of the Lord to oppress His people and commit murder. It’s tough to get a matchup of good and evil any clearer than that; even Jesus’ meetings with Pontius Pilate and Herod’s son Antipas have more nuances.
That makes it easy to dismiss Herod and his choice in Matthew’s Gospel, which would be a mistake. In reading this scripture, there is nothing inherently evil in Herod’s request of the magi. In fact, it could be seen as an opening for atonement and salvation. When the magi inform Herod of the birth of the Messiah as foretold in the scriptures, he has a choice in front of him: does he give up sinfulness, cruelty, and avarice and repent before the Lord? Does he embrace the Epiphany? Will Herod choose to conform himself to the will of God, or continue to stubbornly conform to his own will and desires?
This is the choice that each of us have as well, at Epiphany and every day of our lives. We cling to sinfulness not because it’s horrible but because it’s so attractive. We lust after that which would elevate us above others, whether that is in the flesh, in cash, in power, or any number of other enticements. Herod only differs from us in the extent to which he lusts and the extent to which he sins to succeed. One could argue that Herod has more to lose and a much more difficult choice because of that, which is one reason scripture abounds with warnings about the trappings of wealth in relation to salvation.
Nevertheless, Herod has the choice, and he has the resources to understand it. Rather than embrace the Lord’s will, Herod chooses not just to ignore it but to actively thwart it. In Matthew 2:16-17, Herod orders the massacre of all male children under the age of two in order to block any challenge to the dynasty he wishes to establish in Judea. It is perhaps one of the most sinful blasphemies in the New Testament, made by a man who himself usurped the kingship of the Israelites that rightly belonged in the Davidic line that Jesus restores for all time.
The wise men manage to outfox Herod, of course, which is another reason why we love their story. We want to be the wise men, an ambition which would put us in the right relationship with the Lord. But before we can be Caspar, Melchior, or Balthazar, we must first acknowledge that we are in some ways Herod, too. We have sinned through our un-wisdom, so to speak; we have embraced the corruptness of our world in our own ways. We have to let that go, be willing to live without it, and to humble ourselves before Christ no matter what our station may have otherwise been.
This is the question that arises from Herod: Whose will be done? Ours? Herod chose to oppose the Lord and seek his own dynasty, which ended two generations later still in thrall to Rome. The magi, on the other hand, paid homage to the true King and live in our celebrations to this day. The hindsight we have now gives us even more reason than Herod had to choose the Lord’s will over our own. Will we make Herod’s choice for ourselves and reap eternal damnation for a few fleeting days of our own foolish aggrandizement?
The front page image is “Massacre of the Innocents,” Peter Paul Reubensm 1636-38. On display at the Alte Pinakothek museum in Munich, Germany (via Wikimedia).
“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.