Gregory Heidenblut, O.S.A.
Saint Patrick's Seminary and University
Menlo Park, California
Isa 60: 1-6
Ps 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6
Matt 2: 1-12
Over the years we reminisce about our childhood and the “magical” season of Christmas. We pestered our parents to tell us one-more-time the story of the Wise Men (Magi) coming from far distant lands in search of a king foretold by the stars. Many could not wait until their parents set-up the family crèche. Each day throughout Advent we would move the Wise Men a little closer to the cave where the baby Jesus would appear on Christmas day.
Now that we’re adults we have a different understanding of the Magi and their encounter with the Christ child which would escalate into the slaughter of infant boys in Bethlehem. We no longer move the wise men in the crèche closer to the cave. Instead, we are moved by Christ, we pray, into a deeper and more intimate relationship with the promised King.
Today, we’ll journey on a circuitous route to encounter King Herod the Great, the Wise Men and the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Today, we’ll encounter a theophany, a manifestation of God to humanity; the Epiphany of the Incarnate Word. The word Epiphany means a revelation. Literally, in Greek and Latin, a “drawing back of the veil.” On this day the veil is drawn back on a great mystery, namely, that Christ is the Savior not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles.
We always heard that King Herod the Great was a tyrannical, ruthless man who had no problem disposing of those whom he deemed a threat to his rule, even wives and sons. There is a side of Herod that was not evident in his early days as a benevolent ruler. He would slowly be consumed by suspicion and become a maniacal and consummate megalomaniac.
Herod was half Jew and half Idumaean. There was Edomite blood in his veins. To achieve his goal Herod placed himself in the position of being useful to the Romans. Herod was appointed governor in 47 B.C. and seven years later, he received the title of King, reigning until 4 B.C. He was called Herod the Great, and in many ways deserved this title. He was the only ruler of Palestine who ever succeeded in keeping peace. He was a prolific builder, including the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod could be generous. In difficult times Herod had one terrible flaw in his character. He was insanely suspicious. Herod murdered his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra; his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Even Augustus, the Roman Emperor, said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
Paranoia and suspicion would reach its climax with the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. If familicide came easy to Herod, the killing of a child would be of little trepidation. He was terrified of the Christ coming to take his kingdom. If his heart had not been hardened, he may have seen the anointed one was building a kingdom which was not a threat. Herod could have kept his kingdom and received an eternal crown from Christ not of this world.
Our journey now takes us to the Magi (Wise Men) who would respond, not to the prophecy of sacred scripture but to the prophecies gleaned from the celestial heavens, the stars. The name given to these astrologers from the East is Magi, a word difficult to translate. Herodotus, Greek historian, provides information about the Magi. He states their origin is a Median tribe. The Medes were part of the Empire of the Persians. According to William Barclay, these Magi were men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. They were soothsayers and interpreters of dreams. They were stargazers who believed they could foretell the future and man’s destiny by the star under which they were born.
According to astronomer Michael Molnar, he claims that the star was an actual astronomical event, namely the appearance of Jupiter in conjunction with the sun, the moon, and Saturn in the constellation of Aries — which modern celestial mechanics calculations show occurred on April 17 in the year B.C. 6. In the years 5 to 2 B.C. there was an unusual astronomical phenomenon. In the ancient Egyptian month of Mesori, Sirius the dog star rose at sunrise and shone with extraordinary brilliance. The name Mesori means the birth of a prince. The Magi would undoubtedly see this as the birth of some great king. Even the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus as well as Josephus would write about the coming of a king from Judaea.
The Epiphany of our Lord was overshadowed by faith and darkness, the proverbial battle of good and evil which he’d encounter throughout his earthly life. At one end of this battle we see sages from the east following a “star” they believed would lead them to a new king. Not just any king but the “promise” of human fulfillment exemplified in their offerings of frankincense, gold and myrrh. These were spiritual symbols of kingship, divinity and death. At the other side of the spectrum we find Herod, a man who began as a benevolent leader concerned about the welfare of his people. Darkness would take control in his later years turning him into the most egregious of men.
Using historical evidence and faith, we’ve tried to search for the truth about these men of antiquity, Herod and the Magi. Today, we too commemorate an historical event and once again embrace a theophany of God embracing us in Word and Sacrament. We once again experience the physical Lord present in the bread and wine. We gather to share the life of the Lord with one another.
Like Herod and the Wise Men, we too have our motives and reasons for encountering the Christ child. As children we moved the Magi closer to the infant Jesus, as adults are we moving ourselves closer to Jesus? Do we challenge ourselves to search for the Lord, not by light of a star, but by the light of Christ found on the face of our neighbor or even the poor? Is our relationship with Christ one that is shallow or even superficial? Are we akin to Herod not wanting our privileged way of life disrupted? Do the pleasures of the world tip the scales compared to that which Christ offers?
These are but a few questions we need to ask ourselves on this Solemnity of the Epiphany. We have a choice today. Will we accept the crown that Christ is offering or does our own “kingdom” prevent us from accepting the gift?