In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Charles Causley’s poem ‘Innocents song’ ends with this warning:
‘Watch where he comes walking out of the Christmas flame, dancing, double-talking: Herod is his name’.
I do not come as an innocent, or wise man to this story. My familiarity with it has a dream like quality, infused with long memories of presentations of the story dressed up for children in church.
But this is not a story for my entertainment. King Herod is a homicidal despot whose reign, sustained by violence, enforced compliance to his will. Perhaps he was a psychopath – by turns charming and threatening – depending on what was advantageous. Such leaders are still to be found today.
Nor are the diligent searchers from the east a vehicle for gorgeous costumes to be admired. They are travellers exhausted from a long search, which might, or might not, have a successful conclusion. They travel in faith, which is not the same as certainty. T.S. Eliot well captures this: “A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a journey…”
A report of foreign astrologers passing through Herod’s territory would be more than ordinarily interesting to the King. Gaining their confidence, he extracts their mission from them. Meantime, Herod’s further research fuels his mounting paranoia. He makes his visitors promise to tell him of their mission’s success. Herod too wants to pay his respects.
The royal court of the baby, very different from that of Herod’s palace; brings the magi ‘overwhelming joy’, and the giving of their symbolic gifts to the child. Reflecting on their promise to Herod – the magi decide not to keep it – discreetly making their way home.
May this Epiphany bring you joy and wisdom, gifts the Christ child gives us for our living.
Gracious God we have read and heard the story of your Son’s coming amongst us so often that it is easy not to pause in wonder and adoration. Open our hearts and minds to accept your gift to us: the one whose coming brings fresh hope and life to our tired world, and refreshment to our souls.
The Rev’d John A Young, retired minister of the Synod of Scotland and member of Giffnock URC