(transfered from January 6th)
"Two Herod's, One King," by Reverend Fred Kinsey
“Then Herod secretly called for the [Magi] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
This is what Christmas was all about for me. I must have been a weird kid, looking forward to hearing this Christmas story, as much or more than the story of Santa. Sure, I remember those days, when I still believed in Santa. I remember the days we had a real Christmas tree and spent hours decorating it with lights and ornaments, and finally how we set out a glass of milk and mom’s home-made Christmas cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and went to bed obediently, so we could wake up early and find all Santa’s presents under the tree. Maybe that was the year my brother and I got the Johnny-7 gun, the hottest toy of the year, but ending up playing more with the boxes and making up our own games! That must have been the year my parents told me!
But my more lasting memories are actually of our family ritual of going to 11:00 Christmas Eve service – the cold and snow, the Carols, holding lit candles in the dark singing Silent Night with the packed crowd, and the Nativity gospel story. Coming home after midnight and collapsing in bed.
And I remember in the post-Santa years, how we got up a bit later Christmas morning, not rushed or consumed with present opening, and went back to Christmas Day services, a different, more relaxed feeling, a slimmer crowd, the joy of the light come into the world without candles, and a shared experience of accomplishing something, just in the hearing John’s Gospel, “in the beginning was the word…” and feeling that all was well, even in the midst of the darkest days. All that we needed, had been revealed, made manifest, in the birth of Jesus. Going home for egg nog and opening the rest of the presents was so much more relaxed and meaningful, after that.
In Matthew’s Nativity story, the “wise men,” or Magi – that came to pay homage to the new born king of the Jews – brought some pretty fabulous gifts with them, on their long quest from the east! Gold, for his kingly royalty, frankincense, a perfumed-oil used for worshiping the divine, and myrrh, the ointment of embalming, for the crucified, King Jesus.
So when the Magi come to Herod, the one called “the Great,” asking him where the new born King of the Jews was, it’s understandable that King Herod is upset with this news, frightened even, says Matthew, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod reacts, as all tyrants do, immediately going into executive session, secretly reprimanding his chief priests and scribes. Give me something, he demands! And they tell Herod that according to the prophet Micah, the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Which makes sense, because it’s just a few miles down the road. No wonder the Magi, in following the star, stopped here, in Jerusalem!
Then Herod meets secretly with the Magi, and gives them the good news, how close they are. Go down to neighboring little Bethlehem, he says, and search diligently for the child, for I too am very interested in paying him a visit – I mean, paying him homage, of course! Herod hastily pushes them out the back door, still secretly upset, but confident he has a plan for this rival king, which of course he won’t tell his enemies about – he’s too smart to do that!.
So the Magi set out once again; “and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising.” How odd, thought the Magi, that King Herod had not already gone to worship this new born king himself, seeing he knew he was so close by, in Bethlehem! But the Magi were outsiders, Gentiles, and perhaps they couldn’t understand the ways of Jerusalem’s kings.
When later, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and reveal where Jesus was born, the Magi left for their own country by another road, says Matthew, and Herod was foiled. Sometimes we see best with our eyes closed, while sleeping or praying, with hearts open for the Holy Spirit to enter our lives.
Herod, ruled in a closed network of secrecy, to ensure his power and authority remained unchallenged. But, he couldn’t control the baby Jesus, born of the Spirit, and of the bloodline of the chosen people, whose first worshipers came from eastern, Gentile nations. The wise men of Jerusalem that Herod called on, were not nearly that wise, themselves. Or, as we heard in John’s gospel last week: “[Jesus] came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him, but …those who believed…” even strangers and outsiders, “he gave them power to be the children of God.”
So, Herod-the-Great figures he can still get what he wants, with his new plan, which he hatches from his own despotic fears. He orders all the children in Bethlehem, 2 years old and less, to be slaughtered, just to make sure that this ‘pretender’ to the throne, Jesus, is taken out, once and for all. But the Holy Spirit has already told Joseph in a dream, to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt to keep Jesus from Herod’s murderous intentions.
Of course, there are two Herod’s in Matthew’s gospel. And what the father couldn’t accomplish, the son will complete. Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, is ruler of Israel when Jesus is arrested, and tried, and convicted, as an innocent man, as the people’s King. Family dynasties, and father and son rulers, can and do, wield weapons of revenge, which so clearly overstep God’s righteousness.
And there continue to be many Herod’s in our world today. What is sacrificed, of course, is truth and equity, life and light. It’s interesting that, originally “Epiphany” meant the abrupt manifestation, or surprise appearance, of a sovereign ruler, to come and inspect a subordinate; but the Gospels changed the meaning of Epiphany, to the appearance of the poor [and new born] Jesus, come to inspect the powerful! (cf. Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez)
Jesus operates in plain sight, never in secret. He reveals the truth – he is the life and the light of all people. That is his gift to the world. A gift of dearest treasure! In the middle of the night, when the world is asleep and dreaming, his star guided the Magi to his manger in Bethlehem, and God protected him by Joseph’s dream, so he could be our light, in the day-time, as well.
In this magnificent, and unparalleled gift, we receive our life and find our true light. And it is a gift that we can re-gift, over and over again, to any, and all, in the world.
Presents under the tree can be a small token of this, best gift of all, but really, there is nothing to buy, that can communicate to us, or infuse in us, the love and grace of our king and savior. And the gift of the Messiah, is not something that ends after it is given to us, but is meant to fill us with new life, and with light, that like a candle’s flame, we can pass it on as many times as we want.
On this New Year’s Day, we remember that our gift of faith is stronger than any opposition that is born out of fear, secrecy or violence. Our gift is an open-secret, that is freely given, and thrives on non-violence, justice and love.
And so, in the gift of our new born king, which is given to you this day, I say to you, rejoice in this gospel good news – Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!