Feast of Epiphany: Gospel – Matthew 2:1-12

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Am I Herod, the Wise Men or the Scribes? "

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 5 January 2014

In today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed, we hear of wise men in search of “the infant King of the Jews,” we hear of King Herod’s intention to murder the infant Jesus, and we also hear of the scribes and chief priest in Jerusalem who, knew the movement of the stars in the skies and pointed the wise men in the direction of Bethlehem, where the infant Jesus is to be born.

It might be good for us to reflect on each of these different aspects and characters as they do remind and challenge the way we live our faith daily, and how the secular world in which we live, in different ways are trying to “murder” instead of worship the infant King of the Jews.

First, let us reflect on what “the Infant King of the Jews” whom the three Wise men have come to worship mean.  Usually, a would-be king is feared only after he has been a prince for some years and has established his influence and power.  However, Jesus was already feared by King Herod and the Jews even though He was only an infant.

The Jews who were living in the East were exiled from Israel and Judah centuries before.  They were often rejected, hated and treated as lowly and outcasts of society.  But, in today’s Gospel account, we have three Wise men from the East in search of an infant Jew so that they could worship Him.  And so, even as Jesus was born in the poverty of a stable, He had already reigned supreme over powerful earthly Kings like Herod.

All these and other evidences testify to the greatness of the infant Jesus and points to His divinity.  Indeed, the “Infant King of the Jews,” is also the King of all kings in the world, and should rightly occupy the centre of our hearts and homes.  And so, it is good to ask ourselves today, “Is Jesus, as Saviour of the world, the Lord of our lives in our daily living?

I would like to next reflect on King Herod.  According to scripture scholars, King Herod was “wealthy, politically gifted, intensely loyal, an excellent administrator, and clever enough to remain in the good graces of successive Roman emperors.  His famine relief was superb and his building projects (including the building of the Temple of Jerusalem) were admired even by his enemies.

However, King Herod was crazy for power; he inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews considered him a usurper.  In his last years of his life, as he was suffering considerably from illness, he became a paranoid; he was living in the constant fear and insecurity that people, especially his very own family wanted to seize his throne.  This led him to annihilate the Sanhedrin, assassinate three hundred court officers, and murder his own wife Mariame and her mother Alexandra, and also his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.  (cf. Carson, Barclay)

       

Is it any wonder why King Herod was deeply troubled when he heard that there is going to be born amongst them, the “infant King of the Jews?”  Are we then surprised that he ordered the great slaughter of infants when he discovered that the three Wise men would not return to tell him were the infant Jesus was born?

Many of us are probably somewhat shocked at hearing how murderous and cruel King Herod was and might think that no person in today’s world would commit atrocities . . . If this is what is crossing our minds, let us not forget the wars and conflicts around the world and those that we find in the Middle East and elsewhere that decimate thousands of innocent lives daily.  Let us also not forget that there are an estimated 42 million abortions per year worldwide.  This means that just through abortion alone, more than one billion lives have been terminated since 1980; or 800,000 lives are killed each week or 115,000 are killed daily.  Internationally, one in five pregnancies end in abortion, and 63% or approximately 122 countries in the world allow abortions for mental health grounds.

We should be aware that there are other atrocities that continue kill lives daily, systematically and globally.  And as Christians it is our responsibility to preserve lives and protect lives from perishing. In doing so, let us draw consolation that we have the “Infant King of the Jews” who is infinitely more powerful than all the kings of the world on our side.

One of the main reasons for the widespread of evil in the world is because the secular world we live in promotes a Godless society.  And when God is no longer important and pushed to the background of our lives, our relationships and our society, then the dignity of the human person is no longer clear and the preservation of human lives is no longer absolute; and all of this is because the human person is robbed of the truth that his origin comes from God; all human existence is created in the image and likeness of God.

Let us recall the great atheist bus campaign in London four years ago in 2009 that posted the slogan, “There’s probably no God.  Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life”.  This campaign originally expected to raise £5,500 to pay for its advertisement on 30 buses, but ended up raising £135,000 and advertised on more than 1,000 buses.  This campaign spread not only in UK, but all over the Europe and the world.

       

Also, recently, I happened to click on a u-tube that had something on “God”.  The presenter of the talk show introduced himself as an “atheist.” This drew a thunderous applause from the audience.  He then proceeded to make disgusting remarks about what Pope Francis said . . . which drew further laughter and applause. . . We should not underestimate the destructive influences and power of such atheists.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, time does not permit during this homily to discuss the truth that if God is no longer important in our lives and or worse still if people promote and believe that God does not exist, then human lives will inevitably become cheap, the dignity of the human person will sooner or later vanish, and killings of the human person inside the womb and outside the womb will easily be justified. . . And so, if King Herod was shockingly murderous, our world today has expanded his evil on to a global level; as I mentioned earlier, about 115,000 lives are killed daily in the world through abortion alone.

While such evil is hidden in the background we as Christians who profess that God’s Love is universal and personal at the same time for every single person, then we as Christians must all spread His Love and His Good News of Salvation to all peoples in our daily living.

The great contrast to King Herod, in our Gospel today, are the three Wise men from the East who took great pains in search for the “Infant King of the Jews,” just so that they could worship Him and offer Him the very best of their gifts of gold symbolising Jesus’ royalty, frankincense, His divinity and myrrh His eventual death.

      

Let us note that William Barclay, a renowned Scripture Commentary scholar says, “There is not the slightest need to think that the story of the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend.  It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in the ancient world.   When Jesus Christ came the world was in an eagerness of expectation.  Men were waiting for God and the desire for God was in their hearts.  They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God.  It was to a waiting world that Jesus came; and, when He came, the ends of the earth were gathered at His cradle.  It was the first sign and symbol of the world conquest of Christ.”  (cf. The Gospel of Matthew; vol.1; William Barclay, The Westminster Press: Philadelphia: 1975: p.27).

To find Jesus, the three Wise men had to leave their countries and venture into unknown territories, expose themselves to robbers, murderers and harsh weather conditions of the desert, make endless sacrifices in search for this “Infant King of the Jews,” that the star of Bethlehem was revealing to them.  They trusted the star, they got lost, sort advice from the scribes and chief priests of King Herod, then followed the star again to eventually found the infant as they had expected; lying in a manger with Mary His Mother.

These Wise men’s journey in their search for the “Infant King of the Jews” should also be a challenge for each of us also to seek and find Jesus in our daily living.  Like the Wise men, we too are called to face the trials and harsh conditions of rejection, dangers and even persecution in our life’s journey of our faith.

But, like the Wise men, we too should have the certain hope that God will also give us the “star of Bethlehem” of our lives, to point us to “the Infant King of the Jews” in our daily living.  God will at different situations of our lives send us people and illumine our faith’s journey during our prayer, our discernment of the Holy Spirit’s promptings within us, our reflection on Sacred Scriptures and our fidelity to God’s Will through our obedience to the Teaching Authority of the Church on faith and morals.

      

And, like the Wise men, when we find the “Infant King of the Jews,” we should rejoice and worship our Lord with deep reverence and humility.  On this Feast of the Epiphany, let us each go home today and speak to the Lord personally and offer something that is most precious to us.  This could be setting aside time for someone in need of my shoulder to cry on, to be more active in the Church, for personal and private prayers, sacrificing part of our savings and sharing with the poor and needy, or making the special efforts to visit and be more caring towards my dementia grandparents and the like . . . Open your heart and listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you . . . so that you too can offer your personal precious gift to the Infant King of the Jews.

Finally, as for the scribes and chief priests that King Herod consulted, they were experts who taught the Old Testament and its complex Jewish oral traditions.  So, they knew about the coming and the birth of “the Infant King of the Jews.”  However, they remained disinterested about the Truth and preferred to live a lukewarm and superficial life.

How many of us sometimes find ourselves having such “scribes and chief priests’ attitudes towards God?  . . . We know who God is . . . we know how we are called to love Him and our family and neighbour, but remain disinterested and thus prefer to live a lukewarm and superficial life daily?

As I conclude, let us remind ourselves that we are all clearly called to be inspired by the Three Wise men’s attitude of their relentless and passionate search for “the Infant King of the Jews” in our daily lives . . . and when we find Him, we are called to offer Him the very best of what we own and have, and live for . . . for it is only worth serving an earthly king if we ultimately we are brought closer to God and our personal relationship with Him . . . if this is so, then we are truly continuing to serve the “Infant King of the Jews;” our True Saviour and Lord of the universe.

Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.

                              

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