Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
Merry Christmas! Throughout Advent, we have the first coming linked with the second coming, here in our passage today, we have another parallel. King Herod was not the proper King of the Jews, but rather a usurper. He had taken away their liberty, upset their established order and caused things to be in disarray. We are told that it is fitting that Christ came to bring help to them without human help. It was right for God to free the human race that no human could free. In the second coming St. Peter Chrysologus explains,
In just this way will Christ come again, to undo the antichrist, free the world, restore the original land of paradise, uphold the liberty of the world and take away its slavery.1
As we celebrate our first deliverance let us look forward to the second one that will appear.
On Christmas Eve, in our lectionary reading, we hear of the angels who spoke to the shepherds, but here it is merely a star that the wise men followed. The Shepherds, who were of the Jewish people, were believers or members of the covenant. Therefore, God spoke to them through a reasoning being i.e., an angel. The Magi were Gentiles, so a sign was given to them to guide them to Christ. As St. Paul has written,
“prophecy has been given for believers not for unbelievers, but signs have been given for unbelievers and not for believers.”
Therefore, signs were given to the Gentiles and prophecy to the Jews. Furthermore, St. Gregory the Great tells us, it was reasonable that the silent elements should preach Him when He was not yet speaking and that preachers should make Him known after His birth.
Why was Jerusalem troubled? Salvation was at the very door and they were troubled and disinterested. As in so many previous generations, they remained troubled because of their idolatrous affections that had caused them to turn from God in the very moment that He was pouring His greatest benefit on them. They were once more desirous only of the things that they could have in Egypt and forgetful of the slavery.
The arrival of the wise men should have caused them to think that foreign kings and empires are trembling at His birth and are sending emissaries, should we not also take note? Alas, however, they were disinterested and explained his birth to Herod and the wise men and left it at that.
We must also take this as a warning to ourselves. If there is dullness in our minds for what God is doing or envy for the sin for which we formerly had delight, we must be more fervent than fire to root these out of our minds. Remembering Christ’s words,
“I am come to send fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.
The Holy Spirit is also referred to as fire throughout Scripture and we must ask God that His Holy Spirit would cleanse our minds from this dullness and envy.
King Herod desired to find the child in order to destroy Him, but Herod couldn’t say so to the wise men who so earnestly sought him. He, therefore, pretended that He desired to worship the Child. However, human malice and deceit is no match against the divine plan. After presenting their gifts to Christ and worshipping the Newborn King, they were warned against returning to Herod. Herod symbolises today all those who make a show seeking God but are not earnest and therefore never manage to find Him.
The Magi, in one sense came to Herod and Israel as emissaries of the Gentile world. They came to intercede for peace to be created between Jews and Gentiles, and they hoped that there might be one fold and one Shepherd for all the peoples of the earth.
Perceiving nothing of the deception that Herod offered to them because so full of awe of this great gift that God was giving to man, they could never have imagined that anyone would have attempted such wickedness against something so marvellous.
As they journey on, we see the true marvelousness of the star. It is no ordinary star. It moves, stops, goes on again, before finally resting above Christ. The star’s purpose first of all was to point the Magi to Christ and then later to point the rest of the world to Christ. It remained above the house because there was nothing significant about the place. It was needed to point to Christ.
This star reminds me of the Theotokos icons. Just as the purpose of the star isn’t to look to the star but to Christ, so the purpose of the icon is to point to Christ and not to Mary. Our attention is to be towards our Lord and Saviour. In our own lives, we are to live so that Christ is seen rather than drawing attention to ourselves.
Their journey, at last over, was not without fruit. Their longing to see the one Anointed king of the Israel was fulfilled. We understand that Israel is not just those who believe among ethnic Israel but also the Gentiles who believe according to Divine grace. They had hoped to see the reconciliation of the nations and here they worshipped the reconciler in his crib. They recognised in their worship that He truly is Divine.
Through this Advent season and now entering the Christmas season we have seen the testimony of angels, of prophets, and of signs given. We have seen one marvel linked to another marvel. If only one of these things had happened there might be reason to doubt. But now the Fathers tell us with all this accumulated evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped. Let us join the Magi this morning in worshipping our Saviour.
As Isaiah prophesied that all the nations would come presenting gifts, these wise men are representative of all the nations of the world in offering their gifts. Each of these gifts had a different purpose. First, gold was given in recognition that He is a King. Second, frankincense was given a beautiful gift that speaks of the soothing speech of the Holy Spirit. Finally understanding that life is but a sepulchre, they offered myrrh.
These three gifts also have a spiritual meaning for each of us today. We are to offer each one of these gifts as well in our worship of our God. Gold speaks of wisdom, incense of prayer, and myrrh the mortification of our bodies. St. Gregory the Great explains,
And so do we too offer gold to the newborn king if we shine with the brightness of wisdom from on high. We too offer Him incense if we enkindle on the altar of our hearts the thoughts of our human minds by our heavenly desire. And we offer Him myrrh if we mortify the vices of our bodies by our self-denial….we are offering myrrh to God when we employ the spice of self-restraint to keep this earthly body of ours from decomposing through decadence.2
Let us then in this coming year worship Him in such manner. May our speech be seasoned with grace and wisdom always encouraging and lifting one another up. Let us consistently spend time in prayer, maybe we could purpose to add an additional time of prayer at some point in our day. Finally, we must work on putting to death the passions as we have heard repeatedly from the Fathers.
The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they departed another way. This is a picture of our turning away from the path of sin. Once we have come to know, worship and adore Christ, we abandon the path that we were travelling before i.e., the path of error. We may now walk the narrow path of following Christ. He is our guide to leads us back to our place in paradise from which Adam was driven out. This is the land of the living that is mentioned in the Psalms.
As we celebrate Christmas today and over the next twelve days let us rejoice that our Saviour has come to remove sin from the world. Let us also look forward to the day that He returns to remove the Antichrist and set everything right again.
We must not be as the religious leaders and those in Jerusalem, but instead we need to ask God to purify our hearts with His Holy Spirit so that dullness and envy can have no place in us. We must keep our eyes open to what God is doing in our lives no matter what our circumstances are. This period of restrictions may cause us discouragement, but we need to keep our eyes on God and see what He is doing.
Let us rejoice today that just as Herod’s design against the Christ child were no match for the Divine plan, so also the workings of Satan and his demons are no match for it in our age as well. God is still on the throne and His purpose will not be frustrated no matter what is conspired.
May our lives like the star, and like the Theotokos point to Christ. We need to remember that what we do is not to proclaim ourselves but to proclaim our Lord and Saviour.
Finally, let us in this coming year speak with wisdom, pray more earnestly, and seek to put to death the passions in our lives.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
~ Fr. Matthew
1 Thomas C. Oden and Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 21-22
2 Ibid, 28-29
Herod with the Three Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56312 [retrieved January 14, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint-Gonery.Drei.Heilige.Koenige.jpg.
Journey of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56279 [retrieved January 14, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albanipsalter_DreiKoenige.jpg.
Luini, Bernardino, 1475?-1533?. Adoration of the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46634 [retrieved January 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.