I can never hear this gospel story without shaking my head with wonder and disbelief. Here we have on the one hand, these pagan wise men visiting Christ in Jerusalem, having probably travelled for many months from as far away as Persia, which is what we call Iran today, and yet within a mere few miles of Jesus’ birthplace, the Jewish leaders can’t be bothered to even get off their backsides to go see for themselves the one they have been waiting for so long. They have the head-knowledge to be able to pinpoint for King Herod where the Messiah, the Savior of the people, was to be born, and yet they are willing to allow pagans to go instead of them to seek him out. Why? They would have believed that the Messiah, was their Messiah, their savior, not the foreigners, and yet, and yet, they show no interest in getting ahead of these pagans to get to Jesus first. In fact, they seem to be perfectly willing to allow King Herod to send soldiers to kill this Savior of theirs, and massacre hundreds of other Jewish babies as well. True shepherds, as Jesus himself says in John’s gospel, are willing “to lay down their life for their sheep” (John 10:15). These shepherds, spiritual and pastoral leaders of the people of Israel, won’t lift a finger to save these poor lambs, these children, from destruction.
(By the way, we should not be swayed by those modern souls who want to claim that the whole “Massacre of the Innocents” by King Herod is too fantastic a tale to believe. King Herod ruled as King of Judah from 37 B.C. to his death in 4 B.C. Tyrannical and suspicious to the point of paranoia, he had all actual and presumed opposition eliminated, including his wife and several other members of his own family. He built fortresses (including Herodium and Masada) around the country as places he could escape to, in case of a popular uprising. He even had a list drawn up naming those most popular in every town and city of Judah with a standing order that they be killed in case of his own death, a unique sort of life insurance policy. His soldiers, however, refused to carry out the order when he did die. Such a person would be quite capable of commandeering soldiers to kill babies in Bethlehem on the possibility of one being a future king. Think of Stalin in Russia, who massacred 52 million of his own people, or Pol Pot who killed a similar number of his people in Cambodia, in recent times, to find similar examples).
We are told in our gospel that, when the wise men brought the news of the birth of the “King of the Jews”, that King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. We can readily understand why king Herod, who was paranoid to the point of insane jealousy, would be troubled by the news. But why would all of Jerusalem be so troubled. Why would all those Jews, who had held on through all the dark times of invasion and subjugation and broken dreams to the promises of a future king, and Messiah, react so strangely to the news that he had at last come? (Interestingly, the same word “frightened” is used of the people of Jerusalem when Jesus enters into their city on a donkey in the last week of his life on earth. There is something about the entry, the coming of Jesus into the lives of we human beings, which causes us so much distress)
Why? Why are people so threatened by the coming of the Lord and Savior into their midst? I don’t know for sure, except that I have experienced similar reactions to my preaching of our need to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, in order to find salvation. People are frightened, disturbed, troubled by my message. And I don’t know why. Jesus comes to earth, in order to show forth the love and compassion and mercy of God, his heavenly Father, to bring healing to those who are broken in mind, body and spirit. And the reaction of so many people is fear, resistance, anger. Why? I think of the time when I offered to pray over a Catholic woman so she could be blessed by God. And she said “No!”, in a horrified tone, as if I was threatening to poison her. And I also remember offering to pray with another woman for healing for her injured leg, and she again refused, saying God was too important to worry about her problems. But when her neighbor came in to visit, she urged me to pray with her, as she really needed healing in her life.
I hear people telling me that they will only believe in Jesus if he was to show up in their lives, as he was when he lived on earth, and I used to ask Jesus: Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you show yourself as you did when you appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and converted him to faith in you, and as you appear daily to Muslims in the Near East and bring them to wholesale faith in you, as I hear news of all the time? But now I know that Jesus could appear to them fully, bodily, and yet they would refuse to believe in him. Jesus is present in our Eucharist, in our Mass, every day, every week, and people, even those who are baptized and confirmed Catholics, will not bother to cross the road to come and meet with him. And others will come from far, far away to be present when Jesus manifests himself in a daily, weekly Epiphany in the Eucharist.
Why? how to explain this difference in people’s reactions to the reality which is Jesus? The chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem in our gospel today had head knowledge of Jesus, as their Messiah and savior. But they did not have heart knowledge of him. They did not seek encounter with him, in the way that the pagan wise men did. Today, there are many baptized and confirmed Catholics who know their catechism which they were taught at school, but have no heart knowledge or experience of Jesus. They have not had an encounter with him as their Lord and Savior, as One who loves them more than they could ever know. Maybe they have been brought up to think of Jesus as one who comes to condemn them for their sins, and so they are afraid to meet with him. Maybe they are afraid to come close to Jesus, because of what he might ask them to do for him. Maybe they do not want to acknowledge Jesus as Son of God, because if they did, they would have to listen to what he was asking of them, and they don’t want to do that, because that would mean them giving up their own ideas and plans for their lives.
And so, the chief priests and scribes in the court of Herod have full head-knowledge of the Messiah, the Christ, and can repeat it off by heart to King Herod. But they have never had a heart-encounter with God, and so react with fear and distancing to the news that God’s Anointed One, has been born in their midst. The pagan wise men are drawn by the revelation that a king has been born in Jerusalem and come seeking a heart –knowledge, a living experience and encounter with him, and not just a head –knowledge and understanding of him. And where are we, brothers and sisters? Where do we stand in response to the truth that God has appeared in our midst in the person of Jesus Christ? This is the catechism we received at our Catholic schools. This is what was preached to us at Mass every week. This is what our parents tried to teach us. How do we react to the truth that every time we come to Mass; we can have an encounter with Jesus? Every time we come to prayer or to reading the Bible, we can have a meeting with the living God. Does that fill us with fear, or with delight? Do we want to know more about this Jesus, to grow in personal relationship with Him, or do we want to stand in a polite kind of distance from him, and not let him into our lives any more than he is there right at the moment? The example in our gospel today challenges us with this choice. Do we respond like the chief priests and scribes with polite, intellectual acknowledgement, and pay God with our lip-service and going through the motions of devotion? Or do we respond like the pagan wise men, who are willing to go through whatever kind of commitment is required so long as we can have a personal encounter with the living Lord Jesus? How much do you want of Jesus in your lives, brothers and sisters? How much do I?