Ceding control to gain control

Epiphany – 2016

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

In many churches the figures of the magi (often accompanied by camels) have been slowly making their way through the church, or across the sanctuary until at last, today, they have finally taken their place in the Nativity Scene. It is traditional on this day to focus on the almost miraculous visit of the magi to the infant Christ or on the inclusion of the Gentiles into the ancient faith of the Hebrews. These are important themes, but there is more to the story – not least Herod’s tenuous grasp on power and his determination to hold on to that power at all costs.

The magi (astrologers or magicians), having discovered a new star in the sky have discerned that it means the birth of a Jewish king. They set out in faith, armed with gifts following the star from their homes in the east to the land of Judea and to Jerusalem where they presume that they will find the king. Instead they find King Herod. They assume that as the reigning monarch, he will know where the infant king is to be found. However they discover that Herod has no idea where a king of the Jews might be born.

The birth of a king is not good news for Herod, We are told that Herod and all Jerusalem are troubled. Herod is not a legitimate king of the Jews. He is an Idumean who has achieved his position by cunning and by stealth. His hold on power is tenuous and entirely dependent on his retaining the favour of the current Roman Emperor. The precarious nature of his position is not helped by the fact that the Jewish people resent him. Not only is he not one of their own but he has placed himself firmly on the side of the Roman oppressors.

Like many before and since, Herod’s kingship relied on the use of force to subdue resistance or to eradicate opposition. Even his own father-in-law, whose daughter he married in order to cement his position was not safe but was killed before he could become a threat. A genuine Jewish king had the potential to be a a real danger to Herod’s hold on power. Even a child could provide a focal point for those who resented the current situation focal point for those who resented the current situation. A child allowed to grow to adulthood could rally the disaffected and the disempowered and depose Herod – either through a popular uprising or by military force. It was no wonder then that not only Herod, but all Jerusalem was troubled by the news of the birth. For those who had made an accommodation with Rome any hint of a legitimate king would have been a source of great anxiety – a threat to their present position and wealth.

Herod’s position is so insecure that he cannot afford any suggestion that there is an alternative to his rule. Using the pretext that he wishes to kneel before the new king, he asks the magi to let him know when the star appears. His intention however, is anything but benign. As the story unfolds we discover that Herod’s purpose in discovering more about Jesus is to provide an opportunity for him to destroy Jesus at the earliest possibility. (We are told that he kills all the children two years old and younger in order to ensure that any potential competitor for the throne has been destroyed.)

Herod’s insecurity and hunger for power is in stark contrast to the self-assuredness of the magi. We know very little about the magi but we can assume (from their education and ability to travel and purchase expensive gifts) that they are people of wealth and wisdom. They may not have formal power, but they appear to have an authority that does not rely on external trappings or on the exertion of force. Their influence does not require protection or support but is something that is inherent to them. It is a part of who they are. As a result they need not be concerned that anyone will take that power from them – not even a new and unexpected king. Because they are secure in themselves and in their place in the world, they are able – not only to share in the joy of Jesus’ birth – but to offer him homage and respect. His presence will not disturb their place in the world. It will enrich it. Authority sits so lightly on their shoulders that, in bowing before the infant Jesus, they lose nothing of themselves or of their authority and influence. If anything their humility increases their stature in the eyes of those who observe them. Because what authority they have in inherent to them, but not something bestowed by or usurped from others, they do not have to cling on to it, but can let it go. They know that they lose nothing in the process of acknowledging and worshipping another.

Today’s readings can be seen as a study of power – legitimate and illegitimate power, power that needs no external recognition or agrandisement, and power that is grasped hold of and requires constant reinforcement and assurance. The magi have all that they need and therefore can give all that they have. Herod will never be satisfied that his place in the world is secure and as a consequence he will continue to take because nothing will give him the peace that he needs. The magi do not need to destroy to retain their position, so they are able to affirm and build up others. For Herod, everyone is a threat who must be put down or subdued.

It is natural for us to want to find our place in the world, to move from being a powerless infant to someone who has some power and control over our destiny. This, as Richard Rohr tells us, is the task of the first half of life – finding out who we are and creating order and control. In the process we will find ourselves competing with others and asserting our own wants and needs. The task of the second half of life is, having discovered who we are being secure and at peace with ourselves such that our lives do not impact on others as we seek to satisfy ourselves. Instead, in the second half of life, we will be sufficiently self-assured that we will be able build others up rather than depend on others for our own sense of well-being.

Clearly Herod is stuck in the first half of life, but the magi in their wisdom have entered the second half. The magi demonstrate that it is possible for humans being to relinquish the need for security and to cede the desire for control. It is only when we ourselves reach this stage of life that we are truly able to think more of others than we do of ourselves. It is only when we reach the second stage of life that we are truly able to let go and to allow our lives to be led by the presence of God that is within us. Only then, will all our longing cease and our searching will reach its true end – before the child who renounced his divinity so that we might at last discover ours.



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