"The Magi and the Monster
a sermon based upon Matthew 2:1-6, 7-12, 13-15, 16-23
First, let me wish you all a Happy New Year. May the harsh polar winter that’s been dogging us since December, give us a break now that it’s January. May those places still struggling to recover from last year’s hurricanes and wildfires find the necessary resources to repair their infrastructures and replace what has been lost. May there be a fresh outbreak of "Peace On Earth" where there has been so much rancor, rudeness, and violence last year. May the troubles we’ve witnessed this past year in Washington DC, as our politicians try to get things done for the good of our country -- all the stalemates and the partisan rancor -- be behind us now and not continue in this new year. May our New Year’s Resolutions hold strong and may our efforts flourish, with health and grace and goodwill. May we find hopefulness, helpfulness, and renewed energy for the tasks ahead. That is my prayer for all of us this New Year.
I’m sure those wisemen from the East, who followed the star to Bethlehem, had similarly hopeful, peaceful intentions as they made their journey to worship the newborn king of the Jews. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh should serve the young family well as they get started. (Don’t you think?) May Jesus, Mary, and Joseph flourish, with good health, good fortune, and good will. (Right?)
Well, it didn’t work out that way for the Holy Family! According to Matthew’s Gospel: no sooner are the Magi safely off-stage, headed for their homes, we meet a Monster. King Herod, in a fit of furious rage, sent his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem, and in all that region, who were two years old or younger. What a horrible way to end the Christmas story: a massacre of children, ordered by the ruling power, carried out by his armies. The "slaughter of the innocents" -- mere babies and toddlers -- was triggered by the visit of the wisemen to worship Jesus. That doesn’t show up on our Hallmark Christmas Cards!
You may remember from my sermon last month about the wise-men that "Magi" is the official Greek term for those "Three Kings" we sing about. The Magi were those wealthy and wise travelers from the East, who followed a star... After that sermon in December, Bob Case took me aside to say, regarding the song "We Three Kings of Orient Are": we really don’t know how many there were, nor that they were actually royalty, and they certainly were not Oriental. So, three strikes against that tradition!
Frankly, scholars point to Zoroastrian astrologers from ancient Persia as the models for the wisemen. Some people believe there was a comet – like Haley’s Comet – that cut through the constellations, with a tail as long as a kite in the night sky for several months. Besser Museum Planetarium had a program that showed how modern astronomers have calculated back 2000 years to the way the sky looked during Jesus’ nativity – and they found an unusual alignment of the planets Venus and Jupiter, like pointer stars, which would have caught the eye of the Magi.
From that Greek word, we derive the English word "magician" as well as the word "majesty."
If we think of the Magi as magicians, sorcerers, wizards (not mere Muggles like the rest of us mortals!), then the term "wisemen" meaning astrologer star-gazers is an apt description. These were the "seers," religious interpreters of the times, not unlike Hebrew prophets or Temple priests. If, on the other hand, we accent the "majesty" of the Magi, their regal demeanor & obvious wealth, we call them "kings." It is as kings that they are most often depicted by Hallmark cards & Christmas carols.
Those three wisemen -- Gaspar, Melchoir, & Balthasar -- don’t look very threatening, do they? The fact that the Magi (according to Matthew’s Gospel) stirred up a whole lot of trouble for Jesus, and left in their wake a tragic sequence of blood-shed and brutality, is under-played in our more sensitive & sentimental Christmas season. And for good reason: we don’t want to frighten folks. I mean: who wants to read about bad news in a season that’s dedicated to good news of great joy?
In last Saturday’s The Alpena News (Dec. 30, 2017, page 6-C), Father Joe Muszkiewicz of Alpena’s All Saints Roman Catholic Parish, wrote:
"Our images (imaginations) are often influenced by religious art, which almost always depicts the Holy Family with halos hovering above their heads, in serene and clean settings. We don’t send ‘scratch-n-sniff’ Christmas cards with the sights and smells of a real stable. We don’t think of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph being looked down upon as homeless people, or as immigrants as they fled to Egypt to escape a threat to their family – Herod’s jealousy, and his wanting the newborn king (whoever that was) to be killed and rid of – or having to live under a foreign occupation force (the Romans) when they finally returned from Egypt to Nazareth. …
No, the Holy Family didn’t live a picture perfect existence. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus experienced real problems just like the rest of us. Their holiness didn’t take away the trials and tribulations of life. No, their holiness – their love of God, their faith and trust in God, and their love and trust in one another – carried them through those very trials and tribulations."
Father Joe reminds us that is there is another king in the story (as told by Matthew) – besides the Magi, and besides Jesus (the newborn King) – there is the reigning "King of the Jews" whose picture does not appear on our Christmas cards; a king whose name is forever associated with terrorism and the slaughter of innocents. Someone like Adolf Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein! Of course, I’m talking about Herod, one of the Middle East's most successful, and most cruel, of governors. He is the one I refer to in my sermon title as a "monster": King Herod – known by historians as "Herod the Great."
By the time Jesus was born, Herod had already been "the King of the Jews" for 30 years! He had been designated such by Julius Caesar himself, and Herod’s ruling authority over the Jews had been reconfirmed by Octavius, Caesar Augustus. King Herod, however, was not actually Jewish. He was Idumaean -- a foreigner from the south -- today his birthplace is part of Saudi Arabia. We would call him an "Arab" today.
Of course, Herod knew very well the traditions of the Jewish people -- particularly the prophecies that said someone from "the lineage of David" would one day reclaim the throne and rule in Jerusalem. And Herod also knew that many Jews were offended that he was not a blood-descendant of Jacob.
As a parallel, just imagine if a Palestinian were to be elected Prime Minister in Israel today! (!) The orthodox Jews would have a fit. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Army would probably blow him away, and the Israeli military would clamp down on the Palestinians even harder than they do now. Well, such was the resentment toward Herod in his day! The Romans had appointed an Arab to serve as King of the Jews!
Why would they do that? Apart from the Herod family being one of the richest in the Middle East (which, like the bin-Ladens of Saudi Arabia, or the billionaires elsewhere in the world, carries weight even today), there was Herod’s love of all things Roman. King Herod built aqueducts and whole cities on Greco-Roman grids and in Hellenistic style, with Roman baths, pagan Temples, theaters, and so forth. His greatest fame in the ancient world was (like our own President) as a builder -- a developer of huge public projects -- like the Temple in Jerusalem, & the desert fortress of Masada, & the Mediterranean resort city of Caesarea, with its deep water Seaport, horse-racing stadium, & Coliseum Theatre. Herod named Israel’s new city in honor of Caesar.
But Herod’s most important connection was his military back-ground. In his younger years, Herod’s family had provided the Arabian stallions which pulled Roman chariots… he was, in effect, an arms merchant supplying horsepower to the Roman Legions. As a young man, Herod had served as a brilliant cavalry commander alongside Marc Anthony in the Legion’s North African campaign. Herod was well-known by Cleopatra. He was given rulership over Israel because Herod was a military hero, who could secure the Eastern front of the Roman Empire from invasion! Putting a strongman in charge -- like a tribal chief or warlord, with a ruthless army under his control -- served the purposes of the Empire.
Now that you know some of Herod's background, you may appreciate the tragic irony of today’s story... After being on the Throne in Jerusalem for 30 years already (and he’s about my age: 64), Magi from the East come to Jerusalem and ask (openly) to meet with the new king! They have come to pay homage to the King of the Jews, and Herod... you’re not it! Their timing couldn't be worse!
What's more, the Magi (these wisemen from the East) represented the enemies of Rome...
You see, immediately to the East of Palestine was Parthia -- the only unconquered kingdom of the ancient world which had (twice) defeated the Roman Legions.
King Herod had been placed on the throne in Judea precisely to serve as a buffer-state to keep these Eastern powers out. Herod’s renown ruthlessness and military prowess was useful to the Romans to keep the invading eastern states at bay. Parthia covered the territories of modern-day Jordan, Syria, and Iraq; these Magi intruders were most likely from ancient Baghdad! Further to the East were the wise men of Teheran, ancient Persia, which we call Iran in our day...
Can you imagine, not cute little kids dressed up in king costumes like in our Christmas Pageants, but bearded Ayatollah’s entering modern-day Israel to meet (not with Netanyahu, but) with an alternative government to the one in power? (!) Maybe meeting with the Palestinian Authority in Jericho, or with Hamas in Gaza? If you think there’s a ruckus in the streets of Israel right now, following the President’s decision to move our Embassy from modern Tel Aviv to Old Jerusalem, you can easily imagine why Herod the king was "troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" when these wise men from the East came there.
If they were from Baghdad, or from Iran, that’s provocation, pure and simple! The fact that they were "from the EAST" meant that these magi represented Israel’s enemies! When they meet the monster Herod under those conditions, war is the most likely outcome.
Maybe the Magi weren't so WISE after all - - coming, apparently, without a military escort! They should have been more WARY!
When the Magi arrived, seeking a new-born king, where else would you expect them to go but to the Capitol City...? Where else would a prince be born but in a palace?! As a matter of power politics, it made sense to go to Jerusalem. They head for Herod, the head of state, where one would naturally expect the governing authorities to have some plan regarding the designation of his successor. (Right?)
But instead of finding a spirit of yearning expectancy here in the heartland of the Messiah, the Magi find a very insecure and mean-spirited King Herod.
And, instead of finding in the Temple religious leaders with hearts eager to join them in worship, the wisemen discover scholars -- formal, learned, priestly-types -- who know all the right words about where the baby would be born, but who obviously have no intention of taking any action to seek the Savior themselves!
At this point (as I said last month), Herod surprises us -- and certainly surprised his royal court -- by answering the Magi truthfully. He makes no secret of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from the birthplace of King David. "In Bethlehem of Judea..." Then, compounding the surprise, Herod sends the wisemen away with his blessing: "Go and search diligently for the child. And when you have found him, bring me word, that I may go and worship him as well."
Complicating the matter even further: who ever heard of this little village of Bethlehem?! It's a nowhere place. How easily the wisemen could have taken offense to think that the Prince they had been seeking (at such risk and expense) was to be born in an obscure village, rather than the Capitol City! ... that he would arise from among the peasant class, rather than among the urban elite! How disappointed they could have been to leave the grand sanctuary, with its vast Treasury of incense & gold, to make their way to a Palestinian stable in a shepherd village!
They could have taken offense, but they didn't. They could have been disappointed, but they weren't. I suspect they had begun to realize that God was not bound by common sense. Being wise, they would not let the norms of their culture dictate to their hearts what miracles God could or could not have in store. With God the "unlikely" is still possible. So, though it made little sense, they left the palace, left the city, and followed the prophet's words, out into the Judean darkness, where LO! The star which they had seen in the East went before them!
They rejoiced as it led them to the very door of our Lord. Of course, it was probably more of a tumble-down shack than a house; perhaps even a cave... And what they saw was a poor, young mother, with a poor, little baby. Nothing like a king at all -- quite likely poorer and shabbier than their own servants' quarters. … But this, to their surprise, is where the light of the star came to rest. This is the one to whom the prophecies had pointed, not toward the Temple.
This child is one they could embrace in his weakness, not like Herod in all his power. This is the one, writes Matthew, where "they fell down at his feet and worshiped him."
Do you get the picture? Not just the happy Hallmark Christmas Card version, but the really radical surprising picture: Foreign government officials, men of wealth and privilege, getting "off their high horses" (or camels) and bowing to a refugee woman & her baby. (!) Against all protocol, these Eastern diplomats didn't shrink from the sight of a woman, nor take offense at the smells of the place. They got down in the dirt where the Jesus Gospel began. Where common sense and professional privilege would have kept a facade of aloof dignity, these Magi had no misgivings. The witness of the star, the words of the prophet, and the fact that they had made it this far safely despite all the odds were enough to convince their hearts that this surprising situation was just what God intended as a revelation to the world.
They knelt before Mary & the baby, and presented their gifts - - something they had failed to do back at the Temple, when they were introduced to King Herod. These wisemen offer their gifts to the poor; to a family in need, who are about to become hunted refugees...
Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left by a different route. The courageous journey of these wise foreign Magi is paralleled now by the insecurity of a wicked domestic Monster. Their generous gift-giving is paralleled by Herod’s egocentric neuroses. Their faith is mirrored by his fears; their kindness, by his cruelty.
We are left speechless by the slaughter of children which King Herod ordered done at Bethlehem, in an effort to root out any challenge that the new-born Messiah might make to his soon-dying regime.
Of course, Matthew’s audience of Jewish Christians would see an immediate parallel with Pharaoh’s execution of Hebrew slave children in Egypt which took place in the birth story of Moses, their great Law Giver and author of Torah. What Pharaoh tried to do to Moses, Herod tries to do to Jesus; two similarly fearful rulers who rely on the terror of massacre of innocent children to retain their claim to power.
If you’ve been reading the news, you know it’s still happening in a variety of violent ways even in our world today. So, make a New Year’s resolution that you won’t give in to fear, regardless of how many Tweets threaten nuclear war… or acts of terror target the innocents of today. Fear shuts down the best qualities of our character and lets loose our more base instincts. Fear makes fools of us all. So don’t get panicked!
It’s OK to be wary, and listen to the warnings that come to you in your dreams – like the wisemen did. And like Joseph did.
Joseph had to make the difficult decision to take Mary and Jesus (his wife and his child) away from their homeland and become refugees in Egypt! Leaving the jurisdiction of one’s own government, seeking "asylum" elsewhere, sounds like "treason" to some patriots – "defecting" is what it used to be called when Russians came to America in the Cold War; finding "sanctuary" is what it used to be called when Central Americans fled to America during the Contra Wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, & Guatemala; becoming "immigrants" and "refugees" is what we call the millions of displaced people coming out of the wars and terrorisms of today. Young adults who came (like Jesus did to Egypt) as a child with their refugee parents, who know no other home than the one in which they found asylum, we now call "Dreamers" (because it is assumed that they want to achieve the American Dream, and remain here as naturalized citizens).
It certainly felt like treason to King Herod that the Magi got away, and that Joseph’s family escaped the massacre. A patriotic preacher could make the case that these were acts of cowardice – fleeing, instead of fighting! But Matthew’s Gospel invites us to put ourselves in Joseph’s place for a moment, and to imagine…
You have a dream – actually a horrible nightmare! – in which an angel lets you see into the future… warning you that troops are coming with drawn swords to massacre your family! You awake in a cold sweat, only to learn that the head of your government has issued an all-points bulletin (a search and seizure warrant) to arrest and kill your child!
What do you do? … Try to hide him… like Moses’ mother tried to hide her baby boy in a basket in the Nile River? … But remember: the shepherds had found Jesus – despite the fact that it was in the middle of the night, and Jesus was sleeping in a manger (a feed-trough) in a stable -- probably the last place anyone would expect to find a baby! …
And then, these foreign kings had found Jesus and Mary easily enough. He’s the talk of the town! Shepherds are telling everybody about them. Surely the militia would find him. It’s a story of police powers run amok.
Ever since Jesus was conceived, Mary & Joseph knew there was something special about their child. They knew first-hand the power of God, and they trusted the grace of God. But now, after Jesus was born, they are learning something about the power and the hate that humans can demonstrate.
What King Herod did certainly broke God’s heart. (!) The tender, loving heart of God would be (I believe) even more deeply grieved and outraged by such blatant, arrogant, narcissistic brutality than any of us (who are reading about it second-hand) could ever imagine. After all, God knew each of those two-year old toddlers and their families by name! If no sparrow in the woods falls without God’s knowing it – if every hair of every head has been counted by God – then God certainly knew, too, the thoughts of each mother & father (and child!) as those soldiers drew their swords to slay them.
I believe that God remembers our children who die… and that God grieves with us! God never forgets even one of His little ones – of that you can be sure! Don’t kid yourself that God is indifferent to human pain; or the blasphemy that your heart (or my heart) is "more sensitive" (more merciful, more compassionate, more loving) than God’s heart; or the heresy that "everything that happens is God’s will!" Human sin (such as displayed in today’s Bible text by that Monster Herod) is not God’s will!
King Herod’s brutality is not God’s Will being done on earth! It is the behavior of an arrogant, self-centered, conscience-less, military dictator – whose only use for God is to give his narcissistic, corrupt, and murderous governing an air of legitimacy. That’s why the Temple priests and Bible scholars are employed by him!
You see, God’s Will is creative, not destructive. God’s plan was for the birth of the Savior, Jesus; not his death. It was God’s intention to celebrate Christ’s "Mass" – Christmas – not his Massacre! That was King Herod’s alternative news, not the Good News of the Gospel.
Joseph decided not to fight, but to flee.
He withdrew from the battle and went on retreat. This little remnant of refugees – three homeless people finding safety in a foreign land -- is all that’s left of the once glorious promise of "peace on earth and goodwill among men."
In exile in Egypt, fearing for the lives of his family, Joseph still listened to God. He awaited word from God’s messenger that would tell him that the time was right for yet another move. It came some years later. King Herod was dead, but his three sons now ruled in three divided kingdoms. Herod Archelaus ruled Judea, and he was too much like his father, so (being warned once more in a dream) Joseph relocated to Northern Israel, to the Galilee region, settling in the city of Nazareth. The homeless Holy Family, refugees from Egypt, made a new start in Galilee.
As Father Joe wrote in his year-end column: "When we realize that the Holy Family was real – not only a Christmas card one – then Epiphany becomes a feast for us, too. When we walk with God, despite our family dysfunctions, flaws, and imperfections – when there is love in our family – then we are on the way to being a Holy Family [ourselves]."
May the toxic politics and the brutal violence of this horrible experience in Jesus’ young life open our eyes (as it certainly did his) to the realty of trying to live a faithful, godly life in an ungodly world.
And may we, now that our eyes are wide open, find more empathy in ourselves for people like the Holy Family – victims of violence, home-less families, asylum-seekers, and immigrant refugees in our own day…
And -- through our new awareness, understanding, and empathy – may we show more compassion in our approach to them in this New Year.