Those with power generally don’t enjoy giving it up. Politicians in a scandal hold on to office no matter the cost. Kings and queens reign until their deaths, even if they are not able to carry out their duties.
But on the feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the end of the reign of the powerful and the beginning of the reign of the Word made flesh.
The Gospel from Matthew begins on an ominous note: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod …” (Mt 2:1). Herod was not an especially good guy from the perspective of many in Israel.
He was a “show king,” reigning in the name of Rome. From the standpoint of a fervent son of Israel, he has traded access to power at the betrayal of the covenant. But a problem has surfaced for Herod. Magi, astrologers from the East, have appeared, announcing to Herod that there is a newborn king of the Jews. Herod “was greatly troubled” (Mt 2:3).
But why was Herod troubled? Perhaps he knew the text from Isaiah we read on the feast of the Epiphany. Perhaps he knew that the moment promised by God in Isaiah was at hand: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Is 60:6).
Perhaps he knew that the nations were coming to worship in Jerusalem but not under his reign. Perhaps he knew that the consequence of this moment was the disappearance of his own power, as Rome itself (the source of his own rather minimal power) began to worship this newborn king.
So Herod launches an investigation. He assembles the chief priests and the scribes to read through the Scriptures to find out where the newborn king is to be born. There is an irony to Herod’s search. He looks into the Scriptures to find a prophecy, to discover the truth. And he does! But he does not give himself over to this truth. He does not bend the knee before the newborn king. But he does bring the Magi into his plot to keep power at all costs. He sends them on their way, to perform an investigation for him.
Why didn’t Herod himself go right away? Perhaps he knew that it would be unbecoming of a king to visit a newborn. Perhaps he thought that this might draw the attention of the world to a child that he sought to destroy. Perhaps he knew that if he encountered this king in the flesh that he would be moved to “bend his knee” rather than to enact the plot to kill him. But the Magi do visit, they find the king, and they do “bend the knee”: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage … and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:11).
Gold as befitting of the king of the world, now arrayed in splendor. Incense to adore the Word made flesh. Myrrh, a funeral perfume, as a sign of where this king would reign: from the wood of the cross.
In the end, Herod was right that the powerful had something to worry about. He was right that all the nations, including Rome, would come to adore this newborn king, to offer their very lives at his service.
So on this feast of the Epiphany, we manifest once more to the powerful of our age — the presidents and kings and queens and maybe even ourselves — the power and wisdom of the weakness of God revealed in the Word made flesh.
Come, let us adore.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.