On this Epiphany Sunday we hear a classic story about innocence in the midst of evil, innocence betrayed by those who should have cared.
The Gospel begins by referring to the fact that the guiltless child has been born. Angels in their rapture painted the sky with song. Shepherds heard and came a-running. The star pulled magi out of far lands to come and see. A beautiful, humble scene, giving such joy to all created beings.
Or at least to most of them. Our story contains another reaction as well. Jealousy. Herod feels a spasm of it when the magi ask their simple, trusting question.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
Newborn king? Star rising? Herod, like the magi, should have been filled with joy at this news. But no. Instead, he is “greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” I suppose it would be like envoys from outer space visiting the White House to tell the president that they had selected someone new to take his place.
Cunning Herod does not show his distress to the magi but instead hatches a plan. He had never been very interested in his people, so now he seeks information. He rushes the Jewish chief priests and scribes together and demands to know where this Messiah person is supposed to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they answer. “God promised that a ruler would come from there, one who is to shepherd his people Israel.” It was the very good shepherd God had been pledging for ages. Innocent hearts rejoice.
Herod acts quickly. He oils his way back to the magi and treats them to the story about Bethlehem. He oozes charm, luring them into returning to him with information about the child. He wants to give homage too, he lies. In truth, Herod’s aim is simple: get rid of the competition.
The magi travel on to Bethlehem and give true homage to Jesus. Herod finds out nothing from them because they go back home by a different route, warned by God in a dream.
That is the story. What are we to learn from it?
For myself, I wonder if you and I can retain something of innocence in today’s world? If “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples” (First Reading), maybe Herod’s plan is the only smart way out. Lie, cheat, and kill.
Isn’t the Church today a sinful body? Isn’t the world steeped in self interest? What makes us so sure we would not follow Herod’s example in detail if the opportunity presented itself? Where is our hope?
You will find it in the First Reading. Yes it is dark, that reading says, but light shines into the darkness. If we bother to look at that light, at that child in a manger, we will take on some of the Godly glow we find there. Our lives will settle down and our goals will become simpler. By putting ourselves into the hands of love, Christ’s light will stay alight, sheltered like a candle in the wind.
Innocence in the midst of evil. Innocence betrayed by those who should have cared. But now you see why the Epiphany is actually a story of great hope.
John Foley S. J.