Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus.
By Epiphany is meant a “revelation”, as such today the Church celebrates a revelation of Christ and what precisely this revelation is is extraordinary and quite frankly, upsetting.
The day of the Epiphany is associated with the visit of the Magi to the Holy Child of Bethlehem, an event that is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (the Gospel for today).
The Magi are usually depicted as 3 kings, but they are not identified in the Gospel of Matthew as territorial sovereigns or rulers of nations and the Gospel of Matthew gives us no specific number as to how many Magi sought the Christ child. Further, the Gospel of Matthew describes visitors from the East by the word “Magi” (a word from which our word “magician” comes from). It would not be a stretch to say that the Magi would have been perceived to be sorcerers or wizards, men possessing esoteric knowledge and even supernatural power, a combination of astrologers and alchemists.
We know from the Gospel that the Magi who sought the Holy Child of Bethlehem were well versed in the movements of the stars and they interpreted astral phenomena as indicative of communications from the gods. In the Gospel, the Magi discern that the appearance of a star portends the birth of a king in the lands of Judea. The Magi travel from the East, likely from either Persia or Mesopotamia (lands we know today as Iran and Iraq) to Jerusalem, inquiring of King Herod, the King of the Israelite territory, as to whether there has been in his household a royal birth. This sets the stage for the drama which will follow.
The Magi hearing that no child has been born of Herod’s household are told of an ancient prophecy of the Israelite king who would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then asks them to make inquiries and return to him with information. The star leads them to the location of the Holy Child, whom they offer homage and gifts befitting royalty. The Magi, aware that Herod means to do harm to the Holy Child, return to their home in the East.
It’s one of the most memorable of all the stories in the Gospels, indeed in all the Scriptures.
But what does it mean? I mean the “epiphany” or “revelation” that the Church commemorates today is not that a well-crafted and memorable story about the adventures of Persian sorcerers, but a revelation of the Lord Jesus- so what is the revelation?
The revelation is discerned in the relationship of two kings in the story, not the three kings of the popular imagination- but the two kings are Herod and Jesus.
Herod the King, also known as Herod the Great was King of Judea from the year 36 BC until his death in 4 AD. He was by the worldly standards of the ancient world’s most successful rulers. During his reign he negotiated a settlement with the Roman Empire which enabled him as ruler to keep the Israelite territory for the most part self-governed, rather than under direct imperial control. He revitalized the economy of Judea through massive public works projects which so dazzled the emperor of Rome that he remarked that Herod had made Judea one of the great jewels of his empire. He extended the territory of the Israelites so that it encompassed the borders that had defined the ancient kingdom of David and he rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem on such a scale that it was known as one of the wonders of the ancient world.
And he was a brutal tyrant, a murderer, which was actually a necessary criteria for effective governance in the ancient world. His brutality was such that Augustus Caesar, himself not lightweight when it came to brutality, once commented that he would rather be Herod’s dog than Herod’s son. Herod brokered no opposition and had even his own children killed when it seemed that they were plotting against him.
As I said, Herod’s cruelty, his brutality, would not have been at all unusual. It was an acceptable political tactic and it was masterfully employed by Herod to his benefit and as a result of the effectiveness of his governance, there was prosperity and wealth for many in the lands of the Israelites. And he was also a master propagandist.
His great accomplishments were all calculated to present his very shaky claims to Israelite kingship as having divine approval. Herod was really a propped-up figure, who ruled because he had the backing of the Roman Empire, so he needed something more to maintain his power- and his scheme was to present himself as the promised Messiah- the savior of Biblical prophecy.
One by one, he did all the things that the promised Messiah was expected to do- the crowning achievement of which was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Herod and his dynasty were not just successful, they were the promised kingdom of God- they were the new kingdom of David, not just restored but surpassed.
This is the man to whom the Magi make their inquiry about a new king born in the lands of Judea. Herod, hearing this news, would have been thinking treason, the undoing of his schemes. The last thing he needed was news spreading of a child born in Bethlehem, King David’s city, under the light of a star, a child who was King David’s true heir and the legitimate king of the Israelites. Herod likely clenched his fists tightly knowing that his power could slip out of his hands.
And it was literally slipping from his grasp.
Thus, his scheme to find the child and his fury when he realizes that the Magi had not cooperated with his plan.
The Holy Child in Bethlehem was truly the rightful king and David’s royal heir, but more than this, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is the King of creation itself- for he is God, who has in Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.
His kingship will not be maintained by force of violence, but by love and he will not manifest his power by murder and threats of death but by giving his life so as to conquer the power of death itself.
This is the king that Herod fears, because it is the king that brings the world that men and women created out of the sinful desires and egoism to its end. Herod, and his successors hate King Jesus because he exposes their alleged successes as failures and their accomplishments as foolish tragedies.
The point of this story and its lesson, and its revelation, is that we have to choose our king- is it Herod or the Lord Jesus?
You may think that this choice is self-evident and easy, but think again.
The dark power of Herod lurks in the world to this very day- in all our politics, all our economics, all our worldly preoccupations with wealth, pleasure, power and honors and our desire to attain these things. Herod manifests himself in our preoccupations with politicians, financiers, and celebrities. And Herod echoes in each of our hearts when a decision for Christ is expected of us and our answer is no.
The Herods of the world offer us promises of success, prosperity, comfort and security and will deliver enough of these to us to give legitimacy to their scheming and distract us from their cruelty.
This is why they want to remain in the dark, rather than pay homage to Christ under the light of his star.
If we choose God in Christ as our King, then we join him in his opposition to the power of all the Herods in the world. We will not cooperate with their schemes and we work with Christ to undermine their power and seek with Christ to remake the world. We also learn how to distinguish the true Kingdom of God from its facsimile because we know who the true Messiah, the real Savior of the world truly is.
Like the Magi we will refuse to cooperate and like the Holy Family, we accept that we will suffer. But it is better to suffer ourselves in this world in opposition to Herod than it is to prosper in this world and make others suffer.
So, the great revelation, the great Epiphany of God in Christ is that the true King has come and now, in the light of this revelation, each and every one of us has to make a decision- in the choice between Herod and Jesus, who is our king?