"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