“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Those are words that any earthly king – like Herod – would be cause for them to shake in their golden boots. Normally, with such words spoken in the presence of Herod – “searching for the new king, wanting to do him homage” – the reaction of a crazy man like Herod would normally be, “See those three funny looking guys who just traveled across the desert with all those fine gifts, chop their heads off!”
They’re called the Three Wise Men. But just how wise is it to approach a king and tell him you’re looking, not for him, but for a newborn king? And that you want to worship, not the old king you’re speaking to, but rather this infant king you haven’t even met yet? How wise is it of the Three Wise Men? Not wise at all, if you wish to live to see the next day. Or even the rest of that day when they stood before Herod. It would like standing before the dictator of North Korea and saying, “Excuse me Kim Jong, I’ve come to give worship, not to you, but to another dictator who happens to be your enemy. Could you tell me how to find him?” When I read this Gospel again and again, I still can’t believe that Herod let them go.
But, very uncharacteristic for Herod, he did indeed let them go. He pretends not to be threatened by the Magi who appear before him with the deepest desire in their stirring hearts to worship – not him – but a baby born in Bethlehem. The newborn king of the Jews.
Herod must have thought at minimum, “I’m Jewish, and I’m a King. But these three foreigners want nothing to do with me!” And, for once in his life, he’s right. The only thing the three wise guys want from him is to be pointed in the right direction. “Where is Bethlehem? Show us the way to Bethlehem. Because in Bethlehem we will find the words of Isaiah, ‘Your light has come.’ It is there that we will find the words, ‘Upon you the Lord shines.’”
Of course, they couldn’t say all that to Herod, unless they wanted their heads chopped off. They said only enough that would cause Herod to lead them to their desired destination of light, and remove themselves from their present destination of darkness. For to stand in the presence of Herod was to stand in the presence of darkness. He was ruthless, like the North Korean guy. But to be in the presence of the newborn king of the Jews, and to kneel and do homage in the presence of the child in Bethlehem, was to be, and is to be, in the presence of light.
We can see the Holy Spirit working in the midst of this encounter between the Magi and Herod, just as the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the midst of our lives. The Magi had no business leaving the presence of Herod alive. They insulted him with their words, basically telling him that he was not worthy of our praise and worship. And the forces of darkness are not worthy of our praise and worship. The slander, the gossip, the addictions, the lack of forgiveness, the self-centeredness, the absence of love. If we choose to cooperate with such ways of darkness, we worship and give praise to Herod. But when we attend to the poor, the unborn, the sick and dying, the needy, when we practice mercy and forgiveness, when we build up others verbally or physically, when we give hope and a future to others, we give praise and worship to the newborn king of the Jews, whose light has come into our world and into our hearts.
The Spirit was working that day to hold Herod back from what his evil instincts would normally tell him to do, and the good power of God – the power of light – in that moment prevailed over the power of darkness.
And it’s a good thing it did, because those three visitors from afar, in their visit to the house where they found Mother and child, they took us with them. In a sense, at stake in their arriving safely in Bethlehem was our own understanding and capacity to worship the light, instead of being destroyed in the presence of darkness. God did not allow that to happen. The Spirit is very kind, wise, and so good.
The Magi, in their reaching Bethlehem through the Spirit’s protection, made us, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians, “coheirs.” We are, by virtue of their arriving at the birth scene, “Copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That’s the Good News. That we, us Gentiles, have been elevated from the ways of darkness and sin to the presence of light and holiness. This is all God’s doing. We should have been as dead as the Magi confronting Herod, telling him they want to be in the presence of the light that has come into the world, and not in his darkness. Talk about fortitude! But we are not dead. We survived the confrontation and conversation with Herod.
What that survival has done is that it has opened the door wide, it has burst the door open, it has shattered the door that was closed to us Gentiles, and has opened it to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Let us never forget that we have walked through that door in our Baptism and Confirmation, and entered the world of God Most High. That we are living past the entrance to that door, and not on the previous side of it.
In our faith, in our relationships, in our choices, in our daily living, in all that we do, we are commanded by Jesus to live in his light. And that our lives will reflect the joy of having walked through that door opened for us by Three Wise Men who came to do homage, not to darkness, but to the light.
The Epiphany – the light going off in our heads and the light shining in our hearts – has made us coheirs with Christ, copartners with the Most High. We escaped the clutches of Herod through the Spirit’s protection. Let us always live lives for Christ in thanks to God for inviting us into His light.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” May he always be found at the center of our lives.