Today, on this Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, I want to examine it not through the Magi or through the gifts they bore, which I’ve done before, but rather through the person of King Herod. For after hearing this Gospel story, I am faced with a question: Why was King Herod surprised? It seems to me that the presence of the Star of Bethlehem would have been obvious and that he would have tried to figure out what it meant. Yet he was astonished at the arrival of Magi from the East.
The question of the Magi was: “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” The Gospel relates that he was greatly troubled. Of course, he should be! For his title was “King of the Jews,” and non-Jews, Zoroastrians, came from the East, seeking out a newborn king when, in his mind, the King of the Jews was standing right before them! “We have seen his star at its rising,” they said, “and have come to do him homage.” His star? What star? There’s a star out there? There’s another King of the Jews out there to challenge me?! After listening to the prophecy from Isaiah, he asks the Magi when the star appeared.
Either Herod was a buffoon—which he clearly wasn’t, for he was more cunning and devious than he was a buffoon—or the star must have been more subtle, more ordinary. It must have been something extraordinary inside the ordinary. And the Magi saw something there.
Now I don’t often like to supply non-theological theories and speculations as fact in homilies, but I’m going to do so here, very briefly and quickly. Take it with as much skepticism as you like! But there was a study done by a certain Christian Frederick A. Larson about the Star of Bethlehem (see bethlehemstar.com) in which he used computer projections to examine the night sky in the year 3-2 BC. To summarize his research, he discovered that Jupiter, the King Planet, entered into retrograde motion over Regulus, the King Star, in effect “crowning” it. And all this happened inside the constellation of Leo, the Lion, the Biblical symbol for the tribe of Judah. And all this happened at the same time when the constellation Virgo, the Virgin, rose in the East. At the feet of this constellation was the crescent moon, the “birthing” moon. Connecting all these concepts together, he speculates that the Magi would have concluded that the King of the Jews was being born. But then, nine months later, Jupiter came close to Venus, so close that their light merged and became the brightest light in the night sky. The pagan world saw Venus as the Mother Planet, who was about to give birth to a King. And so the Magi looked at one another and said, “Mount up! Let us go to Jerusalem to see this newborn King of the Jews!” But as they got closer, Jupiter’s retrograde motion made it appear stopped in its tracks, as St. Matthew described. And it would have pointed southward. So when they approached King Herod, they asked where the newborn King was? Hearing the prophecy, which they may not have heard before, they may have realized that light of this so-called star was pointing to Bethlehem. So Herod sends them there, to Bethlehem.
Whether this data convinces you or not, something extraordinary happened in the midst of something ordinary, a significant sign of the Lord’s presence, and the Magi noticed it. Often we become like King Herod, complacent in our lives and ignoring the extraordinary presence of God in our daily life.
The charismatic gift that notices the extraordinary presence of God in the midst of the ordinary is prophecy. Prophets speak incessantly about God and about what He is doing in our midst. They want us complacent ones to notice. So the Prophet Isaiah practically yells out, “Raise your eyes and look about!” For the glory of the Lord shines, and Isaiah might wonder if anyone is taking note. Therefore, he speaks with more force and vigor, describing the light in the midst of darkness and people coming from afar to bask in this glory.
There is a need for prophetic witness today. And monastic life can provide that prophetic witness to the complacency of the world.
Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict speaks of humility, for it takes humility to knock ourselves out of navel-gazing and to notice the presence of God in our midst. St. Benedict teaches us to practice the presence of God: “Let [the monk] recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by the angels at every hour.” Then we must live in such a way that surrenders our will to God’s will. To do this well, the monk (and thereby all of us) has to cultivate the habit of seeing God in all things—the good, the bad, and the ugly—at all times. How soon we forget the God content of daily, mundane life! If we could see this, we would stay with the Lord’s revelation of His saving presence in our midst.
There’s a little bit of Herod in all of us. There’s the desire for comfort and complacency. There’s the rebellion of not taking correction well, of not admitting one’s faults and failings, of the acedia of remaining in ignorance rather than noticing Christ in our midst. That is why we celebrate a whole season of Christmas, to remind ourselves of the presence of the incarnate God.
For this Christ came into the world, to save us from our sins and death. And He came in silence, revealing Himself to shepherds and the Magi, Jews and Gentiles alike, to those who do not consider themselves important in the great grand scheme of things. In his complacency, Herod was tested and failed the test. Let us not fail this test either.