In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Thinking about the Epiphany is an exercise that I always cherished, but this year, I’m in a completely different setting, in a completely different place, with a completely different circumstance. Therefore, I’m coming at Epiphany with an entirely different mindset, and I have to wonder:
Do you think the Magi were just a little bit confused, and maybe even disappointed?
Hear me out. They walk for God knows how far to arrive at the palace of Herod, fully expecting that their journey was over. They read the signs, and went to the place where they thought would be the end of their road, ready to head home after paying homage to the new king, only to be met by a puzzled Herod, who had no earthly idea what they were talking about. They had to explain the math, and tell the king their predictions. But in their heads, they were no doubt doing another set of calculations. The king had no new child born. The star still shone over Bethlehem, miles away. And undoubtedly, news had traveled about the kind of King Herod was (spoilers: he’s atrocious). So when Herod asks them to return after finding this new king, all three immediately said of course they would return.
I expect it was not 5 minutes after leaving the palace that they knew they had to make a choice. Return, and doom a child foretold by prophecy, or completely avoid Herod, return home another way, and hope that they make it back across the borders so that they were out of Herod’s jurisdiction before Herod found out.
We know the decision they made.
What we are told in the scriptures is that they were overjoyed when they found the Christ child. I have no doubts this is true. Knowing that the child was alive, as well as the family, and surrounded by loving parents and neighbors (note this was about 2 years after his birth) would be a relief.
But also, not a little disappointing.
Why? Well, this was the humble home of a construction worker, builder and stone mason. The child was but a peasant. I’m sure some old scholars used to the trappings of academia and the halls of nobility were disappointed to some extent. Furthermore, there was probably even more concern now that they had found the child. This family, let alone this town, had little defense against a mad king, with an entire army at his right hand. Herod would burn the city to the ground, or wreak havoc so devastating that the people here would have wished he had.
Of course, we know that’s exactly what he did too. Herod ordered that all the children under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem be slaughtered. Joseph and Mary were on the run as refugees in Egypt, escaping his wrath. But I guarantee you, the parents of those slaughtered children probably wish that life had ended after that day. No parent should have to bury a child. No parent should have to see their child ripped from their arms. And no parent should have to submit in such a way to such a tyrant.
The Epiphany is a moment of joy, of course. But the joy doesn’t last. It’s followed by terror and blood. Such is often the way of the world. Joy is fleeting, and often afterwards we are left to ask:
Was the joy worth it?
Was the joy of Christmas worth the slaughter of innocents? Was it worth the terror of knowing that doom would fall upon this family, if not sooner than later? Death and terror at the hands of tyrants would follow Jesus all his life, and would eventually end it. Jesus may not have feared…but not everyone is Jesus.
What a dangerous time we live in now, when tyrants reign, and fear clutches the hearts of parents, children, and the marginalized once more. One could say, of course, that tyrants always manage to grab power, and that this isn’t new, it’s just more overt than ever. What I would give to live in better days. But then again, that reminds me of kindly words from another wise man, given voice by a kindly linguist from Britain.
When I sigh, and say “I wish none of this had ever happened,” the words of Gandalf echo in my ear and say,
“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Christmas always is a joyful season, but always comes with the reminder of how close to danger we always are. When light emerges, darkness grows bolder, wilder, more chaotic.
So it’s up to us to make the hard choices.
Do we cower in fear? Or do we live our truth, and speak it boldly?
I hope that we all might do so. I hope we let the light of Christmas never dim, even in the face of tyranny and evil. I hope we have the courage to take action, and not let darkness consume us.
May the Epiphany, though it might illuminate that which would disappoint us, confuse us, or cause us fear, instead embolden us to live in the light.