Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wisdom is everything

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Matthew 2:1-2
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

If it is true, as Francis Bacon asserted, that knowledge is power, then I must likewise insist that wisdom is everything. Today’s gospel chronicles twists and turns we might anticipate viewing on one of those old fashioned lavish television miniseries. The plot line revolves around three struggles with God’s will—by the Magi (or “wise men”), by King Herod, and by St Joseph.

As St Matthew unfolds his gospel account, he hits many times upon the theme of providence—that all of this is an unfolding of God’s plan, much of it foretold in the prophets long ago. Indeed, reading through his gospel is somewhat like reading through an annotated index of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. Matthew stops many times in his gospel narrative to give us notes like, “this happened to fulfill what was spoken of in the prophet so-and-so who wrote such-and-such.” It is an instructive lesson in the providence of God.

I remember one man told me, “I don’t believe in Providence, and I’m from Rhode Island.” It seems to me more often than not when you really get down to it, that those who most strongly disbelieve in the idea that God has a plan for their lives are also the most afraid of what God’s plan might be.

There are many legends that grew up about the Wise Men, or Magi. The few verses of Matthews gospel don’t give us much detailed information. Even the idea that there are three of them is really an assumption based on the three gifts presented to the child Jesus.

Some of the early Christian legends say that there were a band of twelve wise men in the East, who had in their possession a scroll written by Seth, the son of Adam. This scroll was said to have contained prophecies about the Jewish messiah and the astrological signs that would appear at his birth.
These devout men dedicated themselves to looking for the child’s star. Generation after generation, they and their successors would go off to a Persian mountain each month for prayer. There they would purify themselves for three days by washing their bodies in the cold mountain streams. Then they would gaze up into the heavens, praying that someday they might see the sign that would lead them to worship God’s anointed king.

Have you ever known someone who searches for God like that? Perhaps you have yourself at moments in your life. Perhaps you have had that mountain-top experience where you have spent a long time purifying your soul and gazing up into the heavens, praying for a ray of light. Are you still looking? Have you been back to the mountain?

They were “wise men” because when they went looking for answers, they went straight to the source—they looked to God and asked for directions. But that’s not all. The real demonstration of their wisdom is that when the star appeared and showed the way, they knew what to do next. They were wise enough to follow where God led them, and to work to fulfill God’s plan.

In about the year 6 BC or so, the Magi saw the star they were looking for. There are many possibilities about what astronomical sign they saw—aligned planets, a comet, a supernova, or even a shining angel of heaven—we may never know which. But it was perhaps an inner light, welcomed in prayer, that helped them recognize that this was what they had been looking for.

Some legends have it that God miraculously enabled them to travel to Israel to visit the newborn king in only twelve days. Hence, in the Church kalendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, the wise men arrive to worship Christ on the feast of Epiphany, when the light of Christ is manifested to the gentiles as typified by these visiting Magi.

We watch these visitors to Bethlehem, as they kneel with humility and grace before what appears to be nothing but simplicity, vulnerability, and poverty. They have come prepared to kneel in worship and to offer gifts because they discern the glory that is hidden in this lowly child. That is their epiphany.

Then the plot line turns around a new character in the story—King Herod, and unlike the trusting, faithful, and wise gentile seekers from the East, this wicked puppet king is terrified of the idea of God’s providence. The characterization we get in the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, and all of the other writers of antiquity who mention him, is that Herod is a base character who was insecure in his role as king and paranoid that someone (anyone) might usurp his throne.

Herod was appointed king of the Jews by the Roman Empire and was charged with enforcing Roman rule on the local level. Although he cared nothing for religion, he rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, and built it with more magnificence and glory than King Solomon himself . . . just to buy the love of his people. But the people weren’t fooled.

Scarcely a day passed where there was not an execution under Herod’s regime. Herod killed two of his brothers-in-law, his wife Mariamne, and two of his sons to ward off possible threats to his throne. It is no wonder that he would slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem to try to thwart the rise of a future king.

Like any decent royal delegation, the Magi first went to Herod, the local king, to pay their respects and ask for permission to visit the child in his territory. The deceitful Herod said, “By all means; and if you find him, bring me word that I too may come and do him homage.”

The perceptive Magi were warned by God in a dream not to go back to Herod. Herod was a threat to the child, and so the Magi were careful to avoid the authorities and try to lead them off track. When Herod figured out that the Magi were not going to lead him to the future usurper to the throne, he had his men go to the small town of Bethlehem and kill all of the boys under two years of age just to be sure.

The sad thing is that Herod could have been a wonderful part of God’s plan, Herod rebuilt the Temple in all of its former glory. He could have been the royal forerunner to the messianic king. But instead the very idea of being a part of God’s plan filled Herod with terror. The very idea of it not being “all about me” was too great a challenge for Herod to face.

Perhaps some of us today have found ourselves in Herod’s position. Perhaps we all have at different times in our lives, in one way or another. There is a throne in every human heart. I have it; you have it. That throne is only large enough for one person to sit upon. Each of us must decide for ourselves. Is it going to be me sitting on the throne, or is it going to be God?

The amazing thing to me is that God will not push us out of the chair and take a seat on the throne himself. It is up to us to make room for him. Herod gave one thought to the child Jesus sitting on his throne, and said, “Over my dead body!”

The story also turns around a third character—St Joseph, foster father of Jesus. Joseph seems acutely aware of his role in the unfolding of God’s plan. He seems specially attuned to the Lord’s guidance through dreams. Matthew’s gospel especially capture’s St Joseph’s willingness to listen, to believe, and to act in accordance with God’s will.

All of these are particularly important characteristics in the foster father of the only-begotten Son of God. Joseph is responsible for the care of the holy family, and he is not ashamed to look for help and guidance from above.

It was in a dream that Joseph’s worries had been calmed about Mary’s pregnancy. After the departure of the wise men, Joseph again hears the voice of angels in the slumber of his dreams. God warns him about Herod and tells Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt, which is outside Herod’s jurisdiction. It was Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s lead that saved the life of Mary’s newborn child.

Matthew reminds us that this is a part of God’s prophetic plan. Because of Joseph’s action, Jesus was spared from slaughter at the hands of Herod’s men in Bethlehem. The holy family were now refugees seeking sanctuary in a foreign land—vivid parallels of the exodus story.

When Herod died in 4 BC, the angel of the Lord again appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that it was safe to take his family back to Israel. When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his four sons, and the cruel Archelaus was left in control of Judea.

Joseph was again told in a dream not to go back to Bethlehem of Judea, but to return to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, where Joseph and Mary had lived before the birth of Jesus. This was a part of God’s plan to protect his Son and to have him brought up in a safe home. Matthew notes that this explains why the Scriptures note that the Messiah shall be called a Nazarean.

Discerning God’s will through dreams is always a challenging prospect. What if it is merely a bad dream? What if it is a divine warning to flee from danger? What if it is a simple warning to eat less cabbage with dinner? Understanding God’s plan always takes discernment.

Like the wise men, Joseph was a man of discernment because he was a man of prayer. He recognized the message because he was familiar with the messenger. He studied God’s ways in the holy Scriptures; he listened to God’s voice in the synagogue; he opened his heart to God in the temple.

The foolish fear God’s plan, while the righteous rejoice to be a part of it. The foolish seek to thwart God’s will, while the righteous seek to understand and follow it. The foolish look to earthly powers to protect their position, while the righteous look to heaven to show them the way.

What will be our approach? In the fullness of time, that is, at just the right moment, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” O come, let us adore him. In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Fr. Christopher Cantrell SSC said...

That appears to be the reredos of St. James, Lake Delaware! I recognized the airedale!

Fr Timothy Matkin said...