According to my Manuel on the Liturgy, the Feast of the Epiphany rates as one of the principal festivals of the Christian faith. It used to be the time when the earliest Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, but old Emperor Constantine decided sometime in the middle of the fourth century to make Christmas December 25th since all the pagans were partying at that time anyway. January 6 then became the celebration of Christ’s baptism and the start of the season in which people began to recognize the divine in Jesus. Hence the twelve days of Christmas (which most of us don’t celebrate in our culture because, with Christmas commercialism starting in September, we’re all pretty sick of Christmas by this time!).
Nevertheless, the Church still finds lots of meaning in the story in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:1-20) of the Wise Men, King Herod, the escape of the Holy Family into Egypt, and the death of the Holy Innocents. I’d go so far as to say that this story is even more poignant in our world today than it ever has been. The Wise Men (or Three Kings as they are known—even though the Bible neither specifies their number nor gives any indication of their royalty besides the fact that they can afford some pretty high-priced presents!) have come to symbolize the universality of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Christian art has depicted them as a young man, a middle-aged fellow, and an old codger to symbolize Jesus belonging to all the ages. They are also often represented as a European, a Middle-Easterner, and a black African to symbolize Jesus came for all nations and races. Pretty cool, huh?
But to me, it’s Herod who is speaking the loudest. Historically, we know that Herod was not Jewish, but was a foreigner with no authentic claim to rule over Israel except the Roman power which propped him up. He is known to have murdered his own family members in order to secure his position on the throne. How threatened he must have been when informed that a child with legitimate ties to King David had been born!
Throughout history, this murderous tyrant has been remembered as the epitome of evil. Yet the nightly TV news continues to bring Herod to life. Bashar al-Assad, a modern-day Herod, is completely willing to let innocent children suffer so he can remain in power. ISIS seeks to establish an Islamic state through terror and intimidation. Joseph Kony turns children into soldiers to establish his thuggish so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Mass gun violence in the US is ignored for political purposes. Twenty centuries after the time in which Matthew wrote, and we still live in a world where violence is the tool of power.
So what lesson do we take from the Epiphany story? For me, it’s the reminder that Herod’s plot, for all of its brutality, still failed. Violence and ruthlessness never achieve permanent ends. There is, you see, no true king but God, and nothing will blot out God’s Word in Jesus Christ. I also like the fact that it’s the foreigners who are the first real evangelists. So maybe those immigrants have something of value to give us, don't you think? Joseph brings the Messiah safely out of—of all places—Egypt, that once-hated land, reminding us that we never know from where God’s grace and blessings will come.
Happy Epiphany, my friends. Thanks for checking out my blog.
PS-A little “Herod trivia:” The role of the murdering king was popular in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. The hammiest actors usually got the role of Herod, and enjoyed portraying him with fiendish glee during the twelve days of Christmas. Shakespeare makes oblique reference to this in the second act of Hamlet, when Hamlet warns the players about over acting. (“…it out-herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it…”). My favorite hammy Herods are Claude Raines in The Greatest Story Ever Told and Sir Peter Ustinov in Jesus of Nazareth. Click on Sir Peter’s name to see this wonderful actor (and fellow Lutheran) chew the scenery in the 1977 made-for-TV epic.