January 7, 2018

Brief synopsis of the readings: We being 2018 with an old friend, the prophet Isaiah. He writes with imagery of light out of darkness. “[T]he glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.” Those who have been scattered will now return. “At this sight you will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full; since the riches of the sea will flow to you; the wealth of the nations come to you.” Matthew’s Gospel, however, paints a different picture. It begins with some wise men approaching King Herod asking about the infant king of the Jews. Disturbed, Herod spoke with the chief priests and scribes who told him that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Herod then sent these seekers to Bethlehem and asked that once they find this infant they return and tell Herod where to find him so he could do homage. When the wise men found Jesus they presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But because of a dream they had they didn’t return to Herod but returned by another way.

Today I’m going to do something I rarely do: I’m going to stray slightly from today’s readings. We celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the encounter between the wise men and the holy family. To this day we celebrate this encounter by exchanging gifts on Christmas. It’s a profound commemoration because when we give a gift we emulate the wise men and when we receive a gift we recognize that another person sees Christ in us.

I’ve spoken about this in previous homilies, but there is a darker hue to Matthew’s account. Jerusalem, then and now, commanded the center of Jewish life. When the wise men came from the east to seek this “infant king of the Jews” it made sense to come to Jerusalem. And any Jew who lived in Jerusalem would recognize that those seeking the “infant king of the Jews” should speak to Herod.

Jews at the time of the birth of Jesus awaited a Messiah, one chosen from God to deliver them from all that was bad. Frankly, a great deal was bad. After being oppressed by the Greeks, they were (at this point) oppressed by Rome. The Roman Empire allowed them a measure of freedom to worship as they did, but also made it clear that any attempt asserting independence would be cruelly stopped.

Herod found himself in the middle of this. He was a Jew but also someone appointed to his position by Rome. And to be frank, he depended on everything staying the same. The Roman authorities found him useful, a Jew who would keep the peace. Jews looked at him as a turncoat, someone who betrayed them to curry favor with Rome.

So when the wise men showed up and asked for directions to an infant who will deliver the Jews, it wasn’t the best thing he could have heard, it was the worst. Like traitors throughout history he feigned support while planning something entirely different.

Herod called the chief priests and scribes not to see if this child was the Messiah but to find a reason that he wasn’t. Finding something else, he asked the wise men to return and tell him the location of this infant so that he could pay homage. But instead he intended to kill this infant but was frustrated when the wise men were warned to return by another route.
Here is where our story takes a tragic turn: Herod ordered the murder of all the children who might have been Jesus, boys in Bethlehem under 2 years of age. But once again Herod was frustrated: an angel appeared to warn Joseph and Mary about Herod and they took Jesus and fled to Egypt. That was good for Jesus but it wasn’t for other boys in the area. By as early as the fifth century they’ve been known as the Holy Innocents. We don’t know how many babies were murdered at this time, but the number doesn’t matter.

It matters that Herod decided to commit mass murder. As a Jew he was supposed to look forward to the Messiah, but as a person of power he feared being pushed aside. He could have chosen hope, but instead he chose fear.

We who lived in the 20th Century should recognize mass murder. We don’t have exact numbers but our best information tells us that Joseph Stalin ordered the death of 20 million Russians, Adolf Hitler ordered the death of 10 million (6 million of which were Jews), and Pol Pot ordered the death of 4 million Cambodians.

We know that Herod didn’t kill nearly the numbers of Stalin, Hitler, or Pot but his intent was the same. We think of these men as evil, but perhaps if we dig deep we can find not evil, but fear. The murders of the 20th Century all claimed they were seeking racial purity and feared that outsiders (Slavs, Jews, Intellectuals) posed a grave threat to their own.

Herod faced the same fear. He didn’t fear outsiders but instead feared insiders but in a way it was all the same. They all feared they would lose out and face a loss in their status and power. And that fear turned deadly.

I’d like to point out that none of them were successful. The Soviet Union died in 1991, the Third Reich died in 1945, the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, and Jesus escaped Herod’s rule and (let’s face it) redeem the world.

I’m certain none of us will ever do anything remotely this evil but we all live with the fear of losing what we have. And sometimes we do foolish or bad things out of this fear. When I think of this I think about an agency where I once worked. It was an unusual situation where senior management was replaced by a group who had no experience in the field. Our general manager managed by fear. She had the choice of learning from her employees but her fear of appearing weak caused her to bully those who answered to her. Much like Herod, she allowed her fear to overcome her hope. Moral plummeted, customers fled, and the agency eventually failed. To be honest, she wasn’t the only reason for the failure, but if her faith was stronger than her fear, we would have had a different result.

And if Herod could have overcome his fear of losing his status and welcomed this infant king of the Jews, the Holy Innocents could have grown up led fulfilling lives. In the end this didn’t work for Herod as he died when Jesus was still a child.