A Savior in Need of Saving
Second only to the narrative of Jesus’ birth in a manger, the image of the magi honoring the holy infant with royal gifts is a quintessential Christmas scene. Last year’s reflection (see article) on these passages focused on a universal fulfillment found in the anointed child, “Nations shall walk by your light” (Is 60:3). In Year B of the liturgical cycle, it might be helpful to emphasize another aspect of Matthew’s theological portrait. The magi, who were scholars who tried to discern meaning in the movements of stars and planets, came to “pay homage” to this new born king who was destined to struggle through his anointed life.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. (Mt 2:10-11)
Like Herod, are you “greatly troubled” about anything right now?
Do you find meaning in the struggles you face today?
How might you describe your dream or vision for the church of today?
“Where is the child,” the magi asked, “that has been born king? We have come to pay him homage” (Mt 2:2). English translations often render the Greek proskyneo either “to pay homage” or “to worship.” Which is it? Is Matthew trying to depict the act of worship of this holy child or the full submission of one’s loyalty to one in high authority? The answer is nuanced in this Gospel. Matthew most likely leans towards the former. On the other hand, these men from the “East,” a place known for being a source of wisdom, repeatedly emphasize the act of paying homage as their sole purpose in the narrative (see Mt 2:2, 8, 11). Strictly speaking, proskyneo is an act like kneeling to kiss a person’s feet that is reserved to divine figures or people with a divine role in society, as royalty possessed in the ancient world. The action includes more than “adoration” because it implies complete loyalty to the recipient.
In the ancient world, the act of “paying homage” symbolized a complete subordination of the will. Someone paying homage to a king promised through that act to listen and follow every command the king uttered. The homage that the magi paid to Jesus implied this. It means that the proskyneo they paid the child only became complete in following after him, in other words, in the act of discipleship.
Such complete abandonment to divine providence is a matter on which the church should reflect today as it asks itself how to press forward through the struggles that it faces.
It is in this context that King Herod was “greatly troubled” (Mt 2:3). Herod’s obsession to rid himself of threats to his authority might appear to be an embellishment, but it is historically plausible. King Herod, called “the Great” to distinguish him from several other kings of the same name, possessed a significant ego.
Herod the Great from today’s Gospel had given in fully to deadly pride. His palaces rivaled any other among the Mediterranean kingdoms. His palace in Caesarea Maritima was considered a wonder, built with an extension into the actual sea facing the western horizon. He initiated a massive reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple, amassing funds from pilgrims and subjects loyal to his authority but also from those loyal to the Jewish faith who lived at a distance from his kingdom. Increasingly paranoid as he aged, Herod built several summer palaces, including one in the Herodium fortress about three miles from Bethlehem. Near the end of his life, he had become so fearful of assassination that he never spent more than three consecutive days in any one of his palaces.
Thus, the Gospel of Matthew is correct in depicting Herod as a deeply troubled king. Conversely, this narrative also depicts the holy family’s real struggle to survive. The fuller passage of the epiphany scene includes the escape to Egypt (Mt 2:13-15), the massacre of the infants (Mt 2:16-18) and the return from Egypt (Mt 2:19-23). The passage from today’s Gospel is just the first of several that reveal the vulnerability of the holy child. Jesus is a savior that enters the world and is in constant need of saving himself. Matthew illustrates this in one way by emphasizing Jesus’ complete dependence on his mother. Matthew’s repeated mentions of “the child and his mother” suggest that he understood them to be paired for their role in salvation history. For the child to survive, the mother must secure his subsistence. While Mary provides for Jesus, both “the child and his mother” need Joseph’s constant protection as they are displaced migrants on the move. Finally, Joseph is completely lost without the flood of divine revelations received through a series of dreams.
Throughout this narrative, Matthew emphasizes the desperate struggle to survive against constant threats. There is also a stream of hope found in Joseph’s trust in divine providence to help him protect Mary and her child. Such complete abandonment to divine providence is a matter on which the church should reflect today as it asks itself how to press forward through the struggles that it faces.