A reflection on the feast of Epiphany by Fr. George Berendt, PIME.
The New Testament has four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew contains 28 chapters. Chapter One of his Gospel is a long narrative of the ancestry of Jesus and the events surrounding his birth. The first word spoken by a human being appears in Chapter Two of his Gospel. The speaker is one of the Magi who will ask King Herod a question. The first human word that is uttered is “where.” The full sentence goes like this: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Ironically, this will be the same word King Herod will use when he calls the chief priests, the scribes, and his supporters in Jerusalem asking them if they know where this birth took place.
Isn’t it interesting that Matthew places the same word on the lips of men whose hearts are totally different and give opposite meaning to the question they ask?
On the lips of the Magi the word “where” spurts out of hearts that are seeking, looking, and longing for a king to whom they can present their gifts and homage. On the lips of Herod the word “where” comes from a panic-stricken heart, a heart filled with darkness and hatred, a heart that fears the loss of its power and control over God’s people.
On the lips of the Magi the word flows from the hearts of men who have seen a sign in the sky and have searched long and far for the source of this sign, a sign they believe that will lead them to where truth resides. Now after a long and arduous passage they need help in the final steps of their journey to calm and satisfy the desires that have burned so long in their seeking hearts.
On the lips of Herod the question rumbles out of a heart filled with fear and hatred. Matthew doesn’t tell us the details of Herod’s negative emotions but it is safe to infer the reason why Herod’s heart is so filled with fear and hate. The simple fact is that if this unknown child, if allowed to thrive, will become a threat to his position and power. Herod, as king, should have protected God’s people and their faith but didn’t. With the newborn king born this can only mean two things to Herod: rebuke and replacement.
In the breast of Herod it isn’t a heart filled with interest and wonder that beats. Rather it is a darkened heart filled with homicidal intent, bent on lethal action. Herod shows a convincing smokescreen to his visitors from the East but his heart is really filled with nefarious intentions that don’t come to light until he carries out his real plan in the days that will follow. Jesus will escape but others will pay the price as Herod’s henchmen carry out his horrifying plan: the massacre of the innocents.
Herod’s actions are that of a hypocrite, one whose words do not square with his thoughts. As the Newborn King in today’s Gospel who will one day say as an adult: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth…on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (Mt. 23: 27-28).
As Herod’s heart throbs with hate, in the breasts of the Wise Men, seekers of truth, pulse hearts that are “overjoyed…on entering the house” where the child lies and to whom they give homage and gifts. How ironic! The simple word of “where” is symbolic of two hearts weighed downed with two completely different emotions: murderous rejection and joyous acceptance.
Too often we focus on the mystery of the star. Was it a supernova, a comet, or the alignment of Saturn and the moon in the constellation Aries, the constellation associated with Israel? Whatever it was, this heavenly orb and the light of the Hebrew Scriptures transported the Magi to a Child of earth.
Or maybe we rack our brains attempting to determine who the Magi were or from where they came – Persia, Arabia or even as far as India itself. In the end from whence they came is not important at all. They stand in for us, the non-Jews, who seek the Real King of us all.
Then there are those three gifts of gold, a gift fitting to give a king; myrrh, a resin used to embalm the dead; and frankincense, burnt when one offered sacrifice or set alight in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. All prized things then and today that are loaded with religious symbolism.
The Biblical story of the Magi is also our story. We too ask the same question “where” and begin the footsore journey to find the source of our truth and joy. We too look to the stars to guide us as we set out to find what we are really looking for as Bono sings in his popular song. In our lifetimes abundant stars glitter and attract us like summer fireflies but lead us down dead ends and false trails that trap us and lead us nowhere. In the end we find ourselves in dismal circumstances, trapped and locked in box canyons. The sparkling lure of drugs, violence, wealth, consumerism, promiscuity, internet porn, and countless other attractions seem to shine bright in our eyes and minds but eventually these death stars only lead us to a spiritual demise.
Polaris, the North Star, is the one light in the sky that points sailors and trekkers in a sure and right direction. Our spiritual Polaris is Jesus, our Lord.
In the end, all of us are on a spiritual journey and the tale of the Magi is a revelation of our own personal eagerness or reluctance to seek God. In the end if we follow the correct star and listen to the correct word we will arrive safe and sound to the source of our true joy and there at his feet present also our gifts whatever they might be, great or small. He’ll accept them all from our hearts and hands.