Today is the feast of epiphany. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphanea (manifestation). The feast commemorates the manifestation of the newly born King of Israel to the gentiles represented by the magi (three wise men from the East). The word gentile was the expression used by the Jews to refer to those who did not belong to the chosen people of God (Israel). This feast celebrates, therefore, the expansion of the family of God to include the entire human race through the mystery of the incarnation.
The magi received the good news of the birth of Jesus through the ministration of a star. The star brought them to Judea, where they inquired from Herod of the exact place the Child was born. Herod confirmed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and sent them forth. When they found the Newborn King, they worshipped him and offered him their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Later, God instructed them in a dream: “Do not go back to Herod!” What is the moral lesson of this message? I would like to look at it metaphorically.
Now, Herod I (also called the Great) was a paranoid tyrant, whose hands were covered with blood. He was so obsessed with power that he would commit any evil to preserve it. To consolidate his throne as the ruler of Judea, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris, sent her and his son, Antipater, away from court, and married Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess. When he unfoundedly suspected that Mariamne and her family were determined to dethrone him, he murdered her. He had earlier killed her grandfather, Hyrcanus II and her brother, Aristobulus for the same reason. When he felt that the mother of Mariemne (Alexandra) was planning a revenge, he executed her too. To remove every threat from this family, he also killed Kostobar, another brother of Mariemne.
Sometime later, he suspected his two sons from Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, of disloyalty. He executed them. Two years later, he accused his son, Antipater, of plotting his murder and despatched him too. When he fell ill, two Jewish teachers, Judas and Matthias, incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle, which Herod installed at the entrance of the Temple, for the Jews repudiated it as idolatry. The teachers and their pupils were buried alive. Herod would, shortly before his death, slay the infants of Bethlehem.
When Herod realized his own death was imminent and was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, he gathered the most eminent men of every village in Judea, locked them up in a hippodrome, and gave orders to his sister, Salome, to kill them when he died. He quipped bitterly, “I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicings; but I can be mourned on other people’s account.”
This was the path of Herod, a horrifying path, a path very loathsome to God. The magi received the instruction not to go back to Herod because they experienced an awesome transformation through their encounter with Jesus. Note that it was after this encounter that they could hear the voice of God directly. They came to Bethlehem by following an astrological sign.
Not going back to Herod means, metaphorically, not going back to the ways of the gentiles, “a time when we too were ignorant, disobedient and misled and enslaved by differnt passions and pleasures, we lived then in wickedness and ill-will, hating each other and hateful ourselves” (Titus 3:3). The magi were now in Christ. They were now new creatures and the old things must pass away (2 Cor. 2:17). We too have encountered Christ and should not go back to Herod.
[Readings: 1 Jn 4:11-18; Mk 6:45-52]