THE STORY IS NOT A MISTAKE

Author: Fr. Michael Byron
January 06, 2019

King Herod was a crazy man.  By all historical accounts he was mentally unstable, grandiose in his lust for power, ruthless in putting down his enemies—real or perceived—and perpetually paranoid about his grasp on control. 

But he was also a Jew.  Maybe not a very good one, but he was a Jew.  The Romans had installed him as their puppet king in Jerusalem because they figured the Jews could be more easily governed by one of their own.  And as it turns out, that little detail matters quite a bit in the Christmas story, as todays gospel of Matthew recalls.  We hear on this Feast of the Epiphany of the Magi who had been following the star since its rising in the east.  But, as only three guys can do, they got lost.  They arrived not in the place where the child Jesus was, but instead they came to Jerusalem, where they had to ask for directions.  They had apparently lost track of the star and were a few miles off course.  “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” They asked.

And King Herod, the Jew, although he knew nothing about this birth, did know that wherever the Messiah was to arrive in Israel it would be in the City of David, in Bethlehem.  And that is how the wise men knew to go there.  Not because of the star, but because Herod sent them there.  The star only reappeared after the Magi had resumed their journey with Herod’s directions.

What could that mean?  Instead of heading directly to Bethlehem, where those wise men could have come and gone without upsetting anybody, they had instead provoked an act of national terror, with Herod ordering the massacre of all the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem and driving the Holy Family into exile in Egypt?  What could it mean that from the very first moment of his life on earth Jesus was responsible for misunderstanding, panic and fear among the powerful?  And suffering among the most vulnerable?  As an infant!  And what could it mean that that star, which these professional star gazers had studied so closely for so long, led them to exactly the wrong place?  And what could it mean that these foreigners had to be the ones to inform the local Jewish king about the miracle that was taking place on his watch, of which he was completely unaware?  There’s a lot going on in this Epiphany story, some of it fairly disturbing.  Among other things, it means that the Christmas story—the real one, the biblical one—is not primarily a “feel good” story, despite all of our best efforts to make it seem so. It is rather a story about disruption and of the upending of presumed business as usual among human beings.  It is a story in which those who seem to be in control of public life are not.  It is a story in which the apparently “wrong” people are in possession of the truth about what God intends for the world.  The Magi were neither Palestinian nor Jewish, but they knew what Herod did not, he who was both Palestinian and Jewish.  The Savior is born!

This is a story in which poor people strike fear into the hearts of wealthy people, by the very fact of their existence.  The child in the manger, merely sleeping.

And it is a story in which what seem to be mistakes are nothing of the sort.  It was no mistake that the Magi first stopped in Jerusalem on their way to see the newborn king.  It was no mistake that Herod, the arch-enemy of Jesus, told them exactly where they could find him in order to worship.  This is a story that could best be titled, “Things Aren’t What They Seem,” and that is very, very good news…at least for everybody other than Herod.

So what does all this mean for us?  We who are centuries removed from the story?  Well, we aren’t removed from the story, because the same God is still dealing with us.  It’s the same God who pronounces judgement upon those who would presume to be powerful in this world.  The same God who presents us with the most unlikely of truth-tellers in the form of aliens and immigrants and people of other religious or of no religion at all, humbling us for what we presume to know, falsely.  It’s the same God who scandalized the Jewish communities of St. Paul so long ago when he wrote to the Ephesians, “The gentiles are co-heirs and members of the same body and copartners in the promise of Christ...” That’s incredible! 

Christmas is a far more disturbing story than we often realize, and that’s a very good thing…unless we are content with things as they are.  Jesus did not appear in this world in order to impart his blessing upon things as they are.  The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay is actually a ticking time bomb for those of us who are blessed with the faith to understand what God is up to.  The Herod’s of this world are doomed because of the arrival of a poor homeless baby.  The presumed order of the universe is now inverted.  Are we ready to welcome it?
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