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The Other Epiphany

(Article published in the Jan 6,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Mainstream reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 has always read that segment of the infancy narratives that deal with the visit of the magi to the child Jesus as an indication that the God of Israel is also the God of the gentiles. Even before the historicity of the story came under attack –how unlikely it was for a star to rise in the East, appear over Jerusalem and turn south to Bethlehem and stop over a house in that little town; how the occurrence of three exotic men bearing treasures could have so escaped the populace that it seem totally ignorant of Jesus when he finally began his public ministry; how it is completely uncorroborated by independent sources, and even completely missing in Luke – it was the established belief that the point of the story is God’s revelation of Himself to the non-Jewish world. Hence, the story of the magi, has been traditionally referred as the Epiphany.

More recent homilies have gone beyond the significance of the Jewish God being for all and, calling our attention to the fact that the magi, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went back to their respective countries "by another route", stress that an authentic encounter with Jesus ought to effect a radical internal change, a conversion of the heart that causes one to leave the life of the past and pursue a new vision and calling. Many of last Sunday’s sermon must have ended with this exhortation, but none, I am almost certain, could have reached the literary heights of T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi, "We returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods".

I do not mean to challenge this traditional thinking and its contemporary enhancement, but simply wish to call attention to a figure in the magi story of unquestioned historicity, Herod. He was a man as real as you and me albeit with the elements so mixed in him in portions more extreme than found in most of the rest of humanity.

This Herod is whom history refers to as Herod the Great, born around 73 B.C. of Antipater, a Idumean, and Cyprus, the daughter of an Arabian sheik. The political fortunes of father and son are marked by their uncanny ability to back the winning side in the not-too civilized conflicts that were racking Rome at that time, a talent we find in a dynasty or two in our own political scene. Herod was barely 16 years when he was given the task of being governor of Galilee. He launched a campaign against bandits and became popular with the populace, somewhat like a present personality who is most loved by that sector of our society vulnerable to kidnappings. In 40 B.C., Octavian and Anthony, winners against the murderers of Ceasar, obtained for Herod from the Roman Senate the crown of Judea and thus Herod bore the title "King of the Jews".

How he conducted himself in office is a story, bloody and ruthless, by itself. But how Matthew depicted him, in my view, is an epiphany about some of us.

He was said to have been "startled" upon hearing that some strange men, most likely astrologers, had come to town looking for a "newborn King of the Jews". Certainly, Herod could not consider himself a born-again, and so he was certain that he was not the one the magi were looking for. So what was his reaction upon being confronted with this rumor?

He called for a national consultation. He assembled the chief priests and the scribes of the people. There is more to this gesture than meets the eye. There is not much love between Herod, on the one hand, and the chief priests and scribes, on the other. Herod was not a Jew yet he was King of the Jews. He had to flee to Rome when the Jews joined the Parthians in their war against the Romans and was re-installed only after Anthony had driven back the Parthians. But he had to be backed by two legions, veterans of Gaul and the civil wars. This assemblage of chief priests and scribes called to help the executive decide what to do, I suppose, is the prototype of the concept of "unity government".

He posed to them the question of where the Messiah was to be born. Obviously, this is sneaky. Remember the magi were looking only for the "newborn King of the Jews". Herod asked his advisers about the Messiah! Now, who ever told him that the poor magi, most likely extremely disoriented by days and nights of dehydration in the dessert storm, were aware that the King of the Jews was to be the Messiah? They were star-gazers and not bible readers. Executive paranoia, obviously, is not an ailment exclusive to our leaders.

The wily Jews, as wily as their present descendants, gave Herod what he deserved. A tricky answer to a trick question. In Bethlehem, they said, and, to make verification difficult (ala the Perez-Jimenez telenovela, where some people were not totally candid with what they knew) compounded prophecies found in two books, most likely unread by Herod, namely Mich 5:1 and II Samual 5:2. In addition, Herod was asking where the Messiah was to be born, they replied with where the Messiah was to come forth. To what lawyers call a misleading question, the chief priests and scribes gave what lawyers call a non-responsive answer. This should tell us to be wary about the agenda of some people willing to join the "unity government".

At any rate, armed with this intelligence from his collaborators, Herod had his secret meeting with the magi and sent them off on their search with the injunction to give him feedback so he could do the proper thing. But apparently, he did not take the precaution to putting a tail on them. It seems that Herod did not have the benefit of the services of a Ping Lacson. But, if he did, then those whom he assigned to follow the magi must have been distracted by the allures that the little town of Bethlehem had to offer.

And so it came to pass that the magi, after a good night’s sleep, are able to show us how to deal with our Herods. Heed them not and resume our lives another way.

Over 2000 years after Herod died, which was about two years from the purported visit of the magi, doctors tell us that he succumbed to a chronic kidney disease complicated by a very uncomfortable case of maggot-infested gangrene of the genitals. Jan Hirschmann, the lead diagnosing doctor in the case and who is working at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sounds Health Care System in Washington state, said that this included "intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, convulsions in every limb and gangrene of the genitals".

Here’s to wishing our leaders and our readers (not necessarily the same group) a very Happy New Year, with the fervent hope that they, through the mercy of the King of the Jews and Gentles, be spared, though often meriting, the end of Herod the Great.