Sunday reflection: Matthew 2:1–12

“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.

Today we celebrate the solemnity of Epiphany, and our readings today all relate to epiphanies of one sort or another. Perhaps the most intriguing epiphany in today’s readings is the one that gets away. It reminds us of the nature of sin and materialism, and how it can blind us to the Lord’s calling and will.

Consider the position of Herod, often called Herod the Great. Raised as a Jew as the second son of Antipater the Idumaean, his family had converted to Judaism before Antipater, an act considered by some to be a political move to grasp more power. Herod started off his career as governor of Galilee and quickly acquired a reputation for brutality. He allied with Marc Antony to gain the title of King of the Jews from the Roman senate and then waged a bloody interfamily war with the help of the Roman army to make that claim good. When Antony fell and Octavian rose to the rank of consul (later to become Caesar Augustus), Herod managed to win Octavian’s support by imposing his will on Judea. Herod ruled for another 34 years while increasing his reputation for ruthlessness.

Yet Herod also built the Second Temple, allowing for what seemed to be the restoration of sacrificial life for the Israelites. Despite all of Herod’s sins, he ended up in position to serve the Lord and become an instrument of His will, had he so chosen. And when the Magi come to Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem, Herod has the perfect opportunity to experience an epiphany to this end.

That, however, is not what Herod does. He sees the signs not as the unfolding of God’s plan, but as an excuse for his enemies to usurp the throne Herod imposed by blood on the Judeans. It likely never crosses his mind that the prophecies are legitimate, but it’s doubtful Herod would care one way or the other. He wants to secure his throne for himself and his sons, and Herod has no compunction about murder to achieve his goals. (Not long after, he plans the murder a number of high-ranking Judeans at his death in order to ensure plenty of mourning on his passing, but his heirs think better of that plot in the end.)

Greed, avarice, and a thirst for temporal power have blinded Herod to the salvation that Christ will bring. In its way, Herod’s example is a parallel for the fallen line of kings in Israel and Judea; instead of trusting in the Lord and acting as a nation of priests, the kings instead chose temporal power and worldly alliances for their security, adopting idolatrous worship to make themselves more like other nations in their sin. Herod, in that sense, is the representation of the history of the Israelites, who chose to put their faith in kings rather than the Lord Himself.

The Magi, however, choose more wisely. Perhaps Herod’s reputation preceded their meeting with him, or perhaps the Magi were at first unsuspecting of Herod when he demanded an audience with them. By Matthew’s description, it appears that they consulted honestly with Herod during their meeting, giving Herod an opportunity to act in accordance with God’s will. Only after seeing Jesus did the wise men have a vision about Herod’s true intentions and choose to defy his order.

Or did they have an inkling before that? The wise men bring gifts suitable for a king to Jesus in Bethleham — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — after meeting with Herod. They appear to have given Herod due respect for his position, but did they bring gifts to Herod? The Gospel makes no mention of it, but clearly they kept the most remarkable gifts for Christ. “Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” we read in today’s passage, hinting that the wise men had not opened any treasure to Herod despite his status as king, and despite the favor it would bring them.

They had a mission, and understood it well enough to know which authority to follow. When they see Jesus with Mary and Joseph, they know Christ has arrived and pay homage in a manner that at least this passage suggests they never did with Herod.

Instead of choosing to follow earthly kingship, the Magi instead choose to follow the Word of God. Herod surely would have showered them with riches in exchange for what the wise men had discovered, but they chose a path of peril rather than avarice. They understood that their choice could have dire consequences in Herod’s Judea. The Magi have to sneak out of the area, and that also would be no easy task, given how close Bethlehem was to Jerusalem. But they put their faith in the Lord rather than in material possessions and power, and in doing so became instruments of God’s will in a manner rejected by Herod and so many kings in the region before him.

So it is with us when it comes to epiphanies. We must choose constantly whether to put our “trust in princes,” in material security at the expense of serving the Lord. We will often face the choice that confronted the Magi — whether to choose material wealth and power from a world steeped in sin, or whether to choose the Lord and put our faith and trust in Him for our security and salvation. Fortunately for us, we already have the triumph of Christ to sustain us, and the example of three wise men who sought out true kingship. When we say “wise men still seek Him,” we remind ourselves of the nature of wisdom itself, which is trust in the Lord.

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