Today is the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. At this Feast the Church rejoices at the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and Savior of the World. Traditionally there are 3 lessons from the Gospels that the Church ponders on the Epiphany: the baptism of Jesus, the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee and, today’s lesson, the coming of the Magi. The “Catechism” tells us that: In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David…the greatest of all kings. (CCC#528)
To remind ourselves, not everyone was happy at the birth of “the greatest of all Kings.” Perhaps the most threatened was Herod, the so-called “Great.” Whatever else might be going on at the Epiphany, St. Matthew is relating a story of political dynamite. He is quite clear in saying that with the visit of the Magi, Jesus is the new king of the Jews and old Herod is the false one, the usurper, the imposter. When Herod heard about this new born king he must have come close to having a stroke. This was not good news for him. So let’s take a closer look at him.
Herod was of mixed heritage, half Jewish and half of what we today would call Jordanian. By cunning and guile he had made himself useful to the Romans at time of revolt in Palestine and as a reward he was appointed governor in 47 B.C. and seven years later the Romans bestowed the title “king of Israel” upon him.
Later on, someone gave him the title of “Great” perhaps for the way he kept himself in power. He did keep the peace for the 40-some years that he ruled Israel. He built cities and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem.
Herod could be extremely generous. In a difficult economic period he canceled all taxes and when famine swept the region in 25 B.C. he melted down his own gold platters and other pieces to buy food for his starving people.
But he had some very serious character flaws. He suffered no challenges to his authority, real or imagined. He had his own wife, her mother, and three of his sons assassinated because he suspected they were plotting against him. Augustus Caesar once said that “it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”
Near his death, Herod ordered that a group of Jerusalem’s most distinguished citizens be arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges with the provision that they all be executed upon his demise. He wanted to make sure that the city would grieve when he died.
This gives us some insight into Herod’s reaction when the Magi came to ask him about the birth of the new king. As you know it led to the slaughter of all those little boys in Bethlehem. For him it was an issue of job security.
In a much smaller way it reminds me of an old ad that was on TV some time back. Several people are riding in an elevator and a rather powerful, middle-aged woman is engaged in a conversation with a rather nebbish looking, much younger man. He comes up with some sound business insight and she is so impressed that she tells him that there’s a new opening for Vice President of the Northeast region and he might be a good fit. They get off the elevator.
In the back row of the elevator there’s a guy in a suit who looks like the proverbial deer in the headlights and his friend turns to him and asks: “Ted, aren’t you the Vice President for the Northeast region?”
We all can identify with this. Volumes have been written about sibling rivalry, when an older child feels that he or she has been usurped by a younger sibling. There’s a phrase in the work world about being “put out to pasture.” Union people abhor so called “scabs” who replace them during a strike. There are so many more examples. Often these are issues of justice. Other times it is part of the dynamic of life. Most of it’s complicated and not easily resolved. Then there is envy and jealousy, envy is the sin of desiring something that belongs to someone else and jealousy is resenting the real or supposed threat of someone taking something that belongs to you. We easily can see how wars start and people do violence to each other. Resentment reigns all too often. It’s part of the consequence of the Fall from the Garden of Eden. That’s why we have such a deep need for a savior king to free us from all this. And that’s why he commands us to forgive those who harm us and to love our enemies.
Easier said than done, as we all know.
It is about living the faith, in both word and deed. This witness is attractive and welcoming to others even if, at times, it is silent. Pope Francis has stated that Christ and His Gospel are the enemies of no one. Rather, the Christian message responds to the deepest desires of the human heart. He said that “Precisely for this reason, the Gospel cannot be imposed, but must be proposed, because only if accepted freely and embraced with love can it be effective.” The most effective way of proclaiming the Gospel is by living it. The witness of a respectful, prayerful, humble, good humored and loving life, freed from the powers of this world; in other words, the witness of holiness even if offered in silence can reveal the strength of a believer’s convictions. Especially in tough times when we have been wronged, we must pray for the grace of holiness, the grace of a holy and effective witness. The pursuit of justice is part of the Gospel, but it must never lead to a desire for vengeance.
Pope Francis also reminds us that one of our tasks is to lighten up; we too need to remember and affirm that there is joy in the Gospel, even in the bleakest hour.
I share with you once again the wonderful words of G.K. Chesterton. He proclaimed that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” To demonstrate what this lightness is like, Pope Francis said that he prays daily to the saint of good humor, St. Thomas More, English martyr and someone to whom I am particularly devoted. This is a prayer that St. Thomas wrote and prayed while he was being persecuted by King Henry VIII back in the 16th century. It is one of my favorite prayers:
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it. Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place. Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.” Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke, to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.
And so I ask, St. Thomas Moore (pray for us.)