SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
Is 60:1-6, Eph 3:2f, 5f. Mt 21-12 (All A, B, &C)
Goals make a big difference in life, too. Most people without goals want more. When that’s not enough, they want better, and when better’s not enough, they want different. When different is not enough, they become sad, their life becomes meaningless, and they become alienated. All the While, what they need is goals.
People’s goals are like the star of the magi in our Gospel of today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season. The star is an apt symbol of the attraction of light in darkness. The moth is attracted to the ﬂame, the voyager to the lighted window, the nations to the light of the Lord in Jerusalem, and the magi to the star of Bethlehem. That star can sometimes mean trouble, but trouble is far easier to deal with than meaninglessness. Those who have died for something are far better off than those who live for nothing.
Darkness, or black, on the other hand, is the colour of night, the colour of melancholy, grief, and loss. It is also the colour of death, the colour worn by Lucifer, Nazi stone troopers, Italian Fascists, bad guys in the old westerns, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, motorcycle gangs, and Dracula.
We don’t know much about the visitors to the infant Jesus mentioned in St Matthew’s Gospel. Because Matthew is the only Gospel that speaks of the magi, and that with only the few words we have here, over the centuries Christians have added all kinds of details. For example, they made them three in number, after the number of their gifts. They gave them names: Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. They made one young, one middle-aged, and one old. They posited that the magi came from all over the world, including black Africa. As a matter of fact, some scholars think that their story is in a literary type called Midrash, which is a poetic and mystical meditation on a mystery in the light of the Sacred Scriptures. The rabbis loved Midrash, and the Talmud is ﬁlled with it. In it, though, it’s often impossible to tell what is fact and what is meditation.
Midrash or not, Matthew might have had purposes in using the story here. A Jew writing for Jews, he wants to Show a deep contrast between the Jewish and the none—Jewish worlds. Non-Jewish leaders travelled hundreds of miles to honour Jesus; Jewish leaders who were five miles away couldn’t be bothered! Matthew wants us to think of the magi in terms of Isaiah 60. Which is today’s First Reading. His message is the Good News that God loves all people none—Jews as well as Jews and invites all to salvation.
The fact is that we don’t know the magi’s names, where they came from, or how many there were. The Greek word magoi is difficult to translate. The magi have been erroneously called both kings and astrologers. They weren’t kings; nor were they astrologers in any sense that connotes superstition, but only in the sense that they saw in the stars the order of the universe and, not unreasonably, believed that the stars had something to do with the destiny of those born under them. The magi were the sages of their people, whose profession was the propagation of wisdom.
It appears that they had first seen the star two years before their arrival. There are many scientific theories to explain what the star might have been. Halley’s Comet, for example, or a brilliant conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, or a special position of Venus. But the action of the star implies that, in the evangelist Matthew’s mind at least, it was a supernatural phenomenon. That the star could point out an individual place shows that it must have been some luminous object very near the earth; it also moved from east to west, which stars don’t ordinarily do. The star must have disappeared during the magi’s encounter with Herod, for upon the resumption of their journey the magi were exhilarated at seeing the star (v. 10).
Why did the magi conclude from the appearance of the star to the birth of the “king of the Jews”? Perhaps they had acquired some background from the Jews dispersed throughout the world. Immediately before Jesus’ time particularly, expectation was in the air, not only among the Jews in Palestine, but with people all over the Roman Empire. Unlike some Utopian schemes of our time, many people of experience had come to the opinion that they couldn’t build the golden age without God. So it wasn’t strange that the magi should search.
More numerous and more serious difﬁculties than their two—year journey stood in the way of their following the star to its destination. A major one was a man whose story is interwoven with theirs and with Jesus’ — Herod, called “the Great” because of his political astuteness. He had made himself useful to Rome, so Rome used him. In 40 B.C. the Roman senate had appointed him king of Judea, where he remained for 43 long years He was the only ruler in that area who had ever succeeded in keeping the peace. And he had other good points. There were, for example, his achievements in building, which included the Temple in Jerusalem. He could also be generous. When financial times were especially bad, he remitted taxes. In the famine of 25 B.C. he even melted down his own gold plate to buy food for the starving.
But there was another side to Herod. Because he was only half Jew, the other half being Idumaean, the Jews despised him as one who didn’t observe the Law. So Herod felt insecure, which fertilized one of his dominant faults — suspicion. This grew as he became older. That deep fault often caused Herod to murder, his favourite methods being strangling, burning alive, drowning, poisoning, and the sword. If he suspected anyone as a rival, that person was as good as dead.
Perhaps his greatest tragedy was that he’d murdered his ﬁrst wife Mariamne, whom he had loved very much. Unjustly suspecting Mariamne of inﬁdelity, he became stark mad and, in his ungovernable jealousy and rage, ordered Mariamne and her alleged lover slain immediately. As soon as his passion subsided, his affection for Mariamne returned, and he spent the rest of his life lamenting her; he often appeared to talk to her as if making love to her ghost, though he had nine other wives.
He’d also murdered many other relatives, including his sons Alexander and Aristobolus. Even as the magi were visiting him, he was awaiting permission from Rome to execute another son, Antipater. When Matthew writes that King Herod was greatly troubled (v. 3) at the magi’s news of the newborn king, it’s easy to understand why all Jerusalem was disturbed as well. Everybody knew what Herod was capable of, and shivered.
Motivated by reports from his notorious spies as well as his news from the magi, this psychotically suspicious individual assembled all the chief priests and the scribes (v. 4) for details from the prophets about where the Messiah would be born. Their considered answer (vv, 5f.) was Bethlehem. That was the popular opinion, too. When some in a crowd following Jesus later on thought him the Messiah, others, thinking he came from Galilee, asked, “Doesn’t Scripture say that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem?” (J n 7:42.) Herod’s chicanery (vv. 7f.) of ascertaining from the magi the exact time of the star’s appearance and instructing them to report back was typical. But had Herod, the have sent a few horsemen in their tracks.
One entering the house and finding the child with Mary his mother (v. 11), the magi’s faith way again put to the test. Accustomed to court splendor and cultured surroundings, they saw no servants or other divine message to leave for their own country by another route (v. 12). The magi had kept faith with their star.
As for Herod, toward the end of his life he was reined in more closely by the Roman Emperor Augustus, himself not a scrupulous man. Augustus, in fact, said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son huios). The Jewish historian Josephus relates that when Herod at age 70 knew the end wasn’t far off, the bloody tyrant retired to Jericho, the loveliest of the cities he had built; there he locked in the theatre 5,000 prominent men of Jerusalem, giving orders to kill them as soon as he himself should die, in order to forestall the general rejoicing he knew would follow upon his death.
Herod’s death followed ﬁve days after he had acted upon Augustus’ permission to execute the death sentence against his son Antipater. It was a horrible death, his body by that time like a putrefying corpse. He had well prefigured his son Antipas who had John the Baptist murdered and would reign during Jesus’ crucifixion. Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents is easy to believe.
The magi had come because God calls all people, of every race and nation, to recognize Jesus as their Lord and do him homage. Through the shepherds and the magi at the beginning of Jesus’ life, our Lord’s kingdom broke into the world. At Jesus’ death, above his head would appear the title which the magi used in asking for him: “the King of the Jews”
God calls us, too. On our journey through life, we’re to search for a goal that gives meaning to life and try to acquire the qualities, it takes to stay with that goal through thick and thin. Our goal has to have meaning, purpose, and commitment – all of which are inseparable. The activity of a beehive or assembly line may be purposeful, but it’s not meaningful. A life without meaning, purpose, and commitment together, in Shakespeare’s words “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
One source of meaning, purpose, and commitment in our lives is to be instruments of Jesus’ epiphany (showing) in the world — like the magi, though not necessarily in such dramatic fashion. We make the prayer of the Solemn Blessing at the end of this Mass determine the major goal of our life: “The wise men followed the star, and found Christ… May you too ﬁnd the Lord when your pilgrimage is ended,”