Herod the Great could just as easily be the dictator of a country somewhere in the world today. He was tyrannical in his rule, outrageous in lavish spending on palaces, travel, and personal aggrandizement, and paranoid enough that he had more security than his contemporaries. Although he was a puppet or client king of the Romans, he was afforded much leeway in how he ruled within the boundaries of his little kingdom.
Herod was a difficult man. He disliked his own people, but paid them and their religious leaders just enough lip service to seem interested and sympathetic, but he also did what he could do undercut those same leaders and practices. He was well-connected, highly intelligent, and wielded just enough money to make him likeable even when he was not. In short, Herod was like any other autocrat in his or any other time in history. We only know his name because of the events accounted in the Gospels.
The world at the time of Jesus was a world of stark contrasts. The Romans themselves lived well. There was a peaceable security – the Pax Romana – that kept a large and diverse empire prosperous and at peace, albeit a cold peace, but peace nonetheless.
The journey of the Magi would have taken them more than 1,000 miles through the Middle East. Theirs was a well-worn path, traveled by hundreds of thousands of nomads, merchants and exiles over many millennia. As sages or, more precisely, professional astrologers, they would have caused quite a stir in the court with their announcement that a new king was born in this tiny kingdom. Now in his 60s, and already suffering from the degenerating disease that will soon kill him, Herod had not fathered a child in many years.
This announcement – which Herod takes very seriously – was not welcomed news. It was a threat to his safety and security, and of the patrimony of his sons. Herod, like any despot, longs for a dynastic legacy. His name, his lineage, his fame, is to last long after his passing – and ironically it does – but not for the reasons he had fancied and planned.
He is too much like the rulers, governors, legislators, jurists and social pundits who would prefer to marginalize and snuff out the message of the “new born king of the Jews.” The increasing hostility of the world to the expressions of faith – any faith – reflects the intolerance of those who pride themselves on their tolerance. There are those who want to walk comfortably in contradictory worlds, and there is no comfort zone for them to be in.
In our time, we see many like Herod, who marginalize us by pretending to be one of us. They usurp our language, appropriate our symbols, mockingly copy our rituals, and reinterpret our texts to suit their agenda.
Regardless of the duplicity of Herod and his courtiers, the Magi were able to achieve their goal – to present to the newborn king their gifts, honoring his divinity (frankincense), his royal lineage (gold) and prepare for his ultimate sacrifice (myrrh).
Boldly and without reservation we, too, must continue to go about the business of living and practicing our faith in the marketplace, social media, public airwaves, and social institutions.
The forces of the universe that seek to silence the Good News and the exercise of the sacramental economy are fragile and nonconsequential in the face of bold faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. Although the Magi were meant to be the pawns of destruction, they are the first to adore and to honor Jesus Christ as Son of God and Son of David.
As we celebrate this great Feast of the Epiphany – when Jesus is made manifest in his divine nature – let us celebrate with great joy the fact of our salvation. Yes, we need to also acknowledge the guaranteed freedom that allows us to do so easily, but we are foolish not to be cognizant and alert that there are those who preferred that right to be abrogated.
The legacy of Herod indeed remains, not as a great king, but as a tyrant who would squash the very presence of God in his midst for the sake of his own ephemeral power. He stands as a sign to those who throughout history attempt to do the same.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.[[In-content Ad]]