Herod and the Magi, Our Worst and Best Selves

Cambridge, MA. I blog for America under the “In All Things” title, not “The Good Word,” but since I preach most Sundays, I am occasionally tempted to cross the line and comment on the Sunday readings. Perhaps it is auspicious to begin 2010 this way, so here is a reflection on the Gospel for Epiphany, Matthew 2.1-12, the famous account of the arrival of the wise magi from the East, to see and worship the newborn Jesus. (Though I happily leave the expert exegesis to my fellow writers at "The Good Word" and Barbara Reid's The Word column.)
     While the Church calendar usually serves us well and draws our attention to key Gospel texts and their special insights, sometimes we lose something too. This is the case, I think, in the Christmas season, when Matthew 2.1-12 is reserved for Epiphany, while the sequel, Matthew 2.13-18, the account of the slaughter of all the boys under two years old, is heard only on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
     However we understand the account of the magi, one key element is surely the contrast between these wise seekers and king Herod, a contrast that perhaps encouraged tradition to turn the magi into kings, that they might stand beside Herod as marking a very different kind of king. Here we have two models of power, and two utterly different reactions to the newborn Jesus, the promised Messiah.
     The magi - let us suppose them to be men (or men and women?) of considerable wealth and status - go to extraordinary lengths to find and see Jesus. They leave behind their home and its securities, and travel to a distant land; even at the end of their journey, they reach only Jerusalem, the too-obvious and too-famous center of religious truth and right practice, and must ask directions from cynical Herod and his bookish advisors. They finally get to see the child, to offer gifts, to experience overwhelming joy, and then, still following their dreams, to return home. They do not ask favors, they do not stay for a long time, and there is no expectation that these strange visitors will become disciples of Jesus or even abandon the religion they have long practiced at home. They simply find within them, and act out, the instinct-for-Jesus, and willingly suffer all the trouble and travel it entails.
     Herod, by contrast, is nearby, at home in Jerusalem, surrounded by advisors well versed in the scriptures. Yet he did not know what was happening in Bethlehem, had not noticed the star, had no instinct-for-Jesus. Quite the contrary: his entire way of life is secured against such bothersome events, and the last thing he wants to know is that a messenger from God has been born in his neighborhood, without his permission.
     Matthew is asking us, among other things, to look at the magi and Herod next to one another, and to ponder how differently people can react to God’s work and the birth of Jesus. We too are invited to contemplate the differences. I close with just two of my own insights, and please then add your own.
     First, the scenario begs us to consider how people are, or aren’t, willing to risk themselves in encounter with God. The magi have no particular relationship to Israel or expectations of a Messiah, and yet come from outside, far off, to risk everything to find the child. Herod, by contrast, has much at stake in keeping things in good order: the work of God is to be kept safely in the temple, interpreted by duly authorized religious leaders, and God’s anointed king — Herod himself — seated securely on his throne. The magi have the freedom to visit, but Herod knows that if it is true that God is now working anew, surprisingly, without prior authorization, then his throne is no longer safe. The magi very much want to find God in the unexpected place, and Herod is very much terrified by the unexpected place. He has too much to lose. Perhaps we recognize a bit of ourselves in Herod and in the magi? And perhaps we should rejoice a bit more heartily when people who are not members of any Christian community find Jesus on their own terms, give the gifts they have, and yet still return home? Epiphany is about the universality of the light of Christ, but that includes the wisdom of these magi who find Christ in their own way.
      Second, in their instinctive reactions to Jesus, both the magi and Herod go to extremes. There is no moderation in this difficult, uncertain journey of the magi, who have much to lose, and might indeed make fools of themselves should they find nothing at journey’s end. Yet, they go to the extreme, because Jesus has been born. Herod too goes beyond any normal reaction, even hostile, to the birth of a rival. His fear and disquiet are so deep that he seeks to kill the child and, to be safe, all boys young enough to be like the one he fears. In presenting us with the lavish, unexpected desire of the magi to see Jesus, and the extremity of Herod’s violence, Matthew wants us to realize that this is what Jesus can do to people: bring out the very best in us, and the very worst. Much of our lives are lived in moderate zones, where we act neither too positively nor too negatively in response to the Jesus who suddenly appears in our lives. But sometimes extremity is called for, as the light reveals how dark the darkness is. Matthew is reminding us that if we really understand what is happening when God shows up, then it is worth risking everything to see for ourselves — but also that, in a perverse way, it is also not unexpected that we’d rather do anything than allow God to rise up unexpectedly in most ordinary place, in our stables and our Bethlehems.
     In the harsh dark as well as light of Matthew 2, we see ourselves at our best and worst, when God, though long expected, manages to show up unexpectedly. We are chastened, that we not romanticize our prospects in 2010, not underestimate our human capacity for extreme violence, yet too not foreclose the possibility that there are still wise women and men, from somewhere else, who find Christ more honestly than we ever thought we could, in our fear of traveling too far from home.

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Murali Karamchedu
9 years 2 months ago
While I am not a Christain, one of the stories of the magi that I know from my childhood is that of the fourth wise one - 'The other wise man' (by Henry Van Dyke); and it has been now my turn to read it to my children this winter. Here is the google link to it (full access to the book):
Its opening verse is the best summary of the story:
Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.
Merry (belated) Christmas, and an auspiciious New Year to all of you!
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 2 months ago
thank you so much for this link, mmk.  This is a wonderful book - and amazing that the entire book is available online.  I am about half way through and enjoying it very much.  Not just for children, but I'm looking around for some children to read it to.  I love the detail.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 2 months ago
ps.  the book is also a free Kindle download from Amazon (if you have a Kindle).
Nicholas Collura
9 years 2 months ago
Thank you, Father, for this beautiful reflection. I bore it in mind at Mass today, and was surprised by a few connections I saw between the lessons you derive from the Gospel and the First and Second Readings. 
First of all, you make the provocative point that Jerusalem was ''too obvious'' a place for the King of Kings to be found - interesting, even ironic, because the First Reading today (Is. 60:1-6) envisions a glorious day when all people will gather and go precisely to Jerusalem. I wonder if it fits into your understanding of the role of non-Christian (i.e., ''non-obvious'') peoples in the drama of salvation to say that before the Heavenly Jerusalem (described by Isaiah) can be established, Christ needs to come to a peripheral, ''non-obvious'' site?
And why else not Jerusalem yet? Because Herod was there? For Isaiah says to Jerusalem that she will be ''radiant'' at what she sees, and her ''heart will throb and overflow.'' Not like Herod, the sort of king who imperiously and probably stone-facedly expected homage...rather, Jerusalem in the end will be capable of being touched, capable of its heart ''throbbing.'' What an ''extremity'' of emotion for a king, or for a god! And better personified by a newborn baby.
And then the Second Reading, from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, struck me because it speaks of the Gentiles as ''coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.'' Now that the Church is made up of those who once were Gentiles, who once didn't belong to the chosen tribes of Israel themselves, is it a stretch to say we should we be asking ourselves how to rediscover, today, the radical generosity of the Good News, which did not restrict itself to the tribal elect but rather desired ''coheirs'' in its plan? How to ''rejoice a bit more heartily when people who are not members of any Christian community find Jesus on their own terms, give the gifts they have, and yet still return home?'' 


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