Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with one of the last chapters of Isaiah. Jerusalem is celebrated for the Lord will end her darkness. Her light will attract all those who have been driven away and everyone will bring gold and incense and sing the praises of the Lord. Matthew’s Gospel recounts the wise men who come to see Jesus. They observed the star and journeyed to Jerusalem. They spoke with Herod and asked for the location of the “infant King of the Jews.” Troubled, Herod asked his chief priests and scribes who directed the wise men to Bethlehem. Herod asked them to return and tell them where he could find this infant and pay homage. They found Jesus in Bethlehem but were told in a dream to leave by another route and not tell Herod what they found.
Several years ago, when I was a seminarian, I had a conversation with someone who is now a priest. We were talking about some martyr in Catholic history and he commented that he’d be honored to die for his faith, and he was surprised when I didn’t agree. It was an academic discussion because both of us live in a country that protects religious liberty and it’s highly unlikely we’d ever be in a position to sacrifice anything for our faith.
Our conversation didn’t get anywhere near the “how would you like to be the world’s redeemer” but I’m guessing he would have jumped at that idea. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to look back on his life and know that his resume included the salvation of the world?
Well, I wouldn’t. These last few weeks we’ve read about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and, frankly, I’m grateful God didn’t choose me.
Now I know this isn’t how we normally view these readings. And in the past I’ve talked about how the gifts these wise men presented foreshadow the gifts we give each other at Christmas. I’ve talked about how our gifts to our loved ones signify how we see the divine in each other.
That’s all true, but there is a darker side to this Gospel. The wise men (otherwise known as astrologers) saw the star above Bethlehem and travelled to Jerusalem. There they met with Herod the Great and asked about the “infant King of the Jews.”
This was nothing but bad news for Herod: he was seen by the Romans as the King of the Jews. His family converted to Judaism and his “Jewish cred” was suspect among the Jews. Hearing about an infant King of the Jews created the possibility that Herod would be displaced and lose all that he had. His request to the wise men (“Go and find out all about the child, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.”) was nothing more than a plot to kill this infant and preserve his own status.
Fortunately for us Herod’s plan did not work. After paying homage to Jesus they left by a different route and did not reveal his location to Herod. In a funny sort of way, the fact that Herod didn’t grow up as a Jew worked in our favor. He may not have known the prophecy from the Old Testament prophet Mica: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathaha least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.” We know this because he had to ask his chief priests and scribes for information on where the Messiah was to be born. Had he been born a Jew he probably would have already been familiar with the prophecy from Mica.
Immediately after this reading Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt out of a well founded fear that Herod would order Jesus’ death. And they were right: while Herod may not have known that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem he soon learned. He ordered the murder of newborn boys under two years of age. We now know them as the “Holy Innocents.”
I write this against the background of the reality that our call to fulfill our values often rests on experiences beyond our control. Mary was asked if she wished to be the mother of our savior, and an angel encouraged Joseph to accept his pregnant fiance. And let’s face it: we have absolutely no idea how much the human/divine Jesus knew about his future.
But I think we can safely know that the flight to Egypt and the murder of the innocents was in nobody’s playbook. And we cannot know if anyone in the Holy Family, years later, thought about their lives in the context of choosing a different path. Knowing what they learned I like to think they would have made the same choices. I like to think that, on some level, they recognized how their decisions changed our history.
We don’t live lives that will change history in the same way that Jesus did. But we believe we are all called to live lives in God’s plan. That means we are called to make decisions based on our moral compasses with no idea how they will fit into salvation history.
The shepherds from last week and the wise men from this week faded into history, and to a lesser extent so did Herod (who, ironically, died not long after this reading). They found themselves as minor players in major dramas, and they may well have not recognized their roles in their lifetimes.
But we know about them today because of their roles. And in recognizing that, we also need to recognize that simple, random events in our lives may play roles larger than we can imagine.
We don’t know if there was a single poor person who looked into the eyes of St. Theresa of Calcutta and changed her life. St. John XXIII was elected Pope in 1958 by cardinals who incorrectly believed that this 77 year old son of peasant farmers would serve quietly for a few years and die in obscurity.
And we live out lives without knowing the long term effects of our simple acts of kindness or justice. Each day gives us the opportunity to be kind to someone, to do the seemingly anonymous act of courage, to be who God knows we can be.
We know we will not save the world, and likely we will not be asked to die for our faith. But when we emulate the gifts given to an infant in a faraway land a long, long time ago we make an impact reaches beyond our imagination.