Today’s Gospel presents us with a very nice, and very familiar story. It also presents us with a rather stark contrast that I find both instructive and challenging.
On one hand we have the Magi. On the other we have King Herod.
First of all, in spite of singing “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, the Magi were not kings. They dabbled in arcane arts. “Magicians” comes from their name. One translation calls them “astrologers” They watched the stars for signs. They were like psychics. Into auras and crystals and things like that. They follow a star. They make their itinerary and plan their route on the basis of dreams. They are, all in all, rather funky, and even a little flakey.
Herod, on the other hand was a very hard-nosed realist. He was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. He was a massive builder, and many ruins of his building projects still remain till this day. We have references to him in historical documents. We have statues of him and so know what he looked like. We know a lot about his life.
The Magi we know little about. We do not know their names. The names Casper, Balthazar and Melchior come from much later embellishments of the story. We think there were three only because the number of gifts were three: gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know where they were from, only from “the east”. That could be Bayonne, NJ or even Weehawken. They are very shadowy figures.
Herod, in contrast, was very real. He clung tenaciously to power for forty years, and did whatever was necessary to stay in power, including murdering his wife, two of his sons, and a whole slew of various other relatives. When he died, afraid that people would rejoice at his passing (he had taxed them heavily for his many projects), he had a large group of prominent men apprehended, with orders to have them killed when he died, so that people would grieve on his death. Fortunately for the men, once Herod died no one paid any attention to his orders.
The Magi must have been incredibly politically naive to walk into Jerusalem loudly proclaiming that they were looking for the new born King of the Jews, the one to replace old Herod, when Herod was known to be such a homicidal maniac. With their eyes fixed on the stars they were hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground. Some responsibility for the massacre of the innocents that followed must fall on them.
So on the one hand we have this very hard-nosed, highly effective, if brutal and ruthless, King Herod, and on the other these very shadowy and rather flakey guys, the magi.
And yet: we don’t sing any songs about King Herod like we sing each year, “Oooh, Star of Wonder, Star of Night” about the magi. And no images of King Herod appear on countless Christmas cards the way the magi and their dromedaries do. And no statuettes or figurines of King Herod appear in crèche scenes across the globe like the magi do. And most importantly, the magi found the Christ child, but Herod never did.
So how about us? Are we to be hard-boiled, unsentimental, movers and shakers like Herod, or to be somewhat flakey and dreamy like the magi?
I think it helps, if you are looking for the Christ, to be a bit flakey and dreamy, a bit visionary; to look for deeper meaning behind the obvious surface reality. To find the way of Christ it helps to follow stars and to dream dreams. It is necessary to seek for deeper meaning beyond the obvious, to see more deeply, to perceive a new born king in a stable.
We call the magi “wise men”, because they had the wisdom to see a deeper reality, a fuller meaning than just the physical and the obvious. Like the magi we need to be a little “off”, just funky enough to be able to see Jesus in the poor and the lonely, to realize that it is in giving that we receive, that the meek shall inherit the earth, that in bread broken and shared and wine poured out the reality of Jesus, His very Flesh and Blood, is truly and powerfully with us.
To truly perceive these things it helps to be a little flakey.
Keep Epiphany weird.