... we have come to do him homage.
The wise men from the East came to find the infant king of the Jews; we have come to this Mass for exactly the same reason - we have come to do him homage.
Listening when someone speaks is paying them respect. We pay homage to God by listening to his word. We listen to the words of the Scriptures proclaimed in every Mass during the Liturgy of the Word. We listen and then we obey, we live the word in our lives.
Once I met a young man who said 'Oh, you're a priest. Do you give good sermons?' At the time I didn't know what to answer but now, with a little more experience, I would say 'That depends a lot on how well you listen.'
Now you may have noticed that there is a basic tension in the Gospel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Jerusalem is the busy city, the metro-centre; Bethlehem is the quiet little town in the back blocks. Jerusalem is noisy and profane, ruled over by an arrogant, power-hungry king. The house in Bethlehem in which Jesus and Mary are found by the wise men is ruled over by a powerless infant. It is a place of silence, holiness and peace.
Simple questions propose themselves: Do I live more in Jerusalem or in Bethlehem? Which of these two places do I live in? Which of these two places lives in me?
The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem causes anxiety and upset. Herod was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. The joy of the angels (and of the shepherds) is now forgotten.
Strange, isn't it, the way people can react so differently to the same news! Mary and Joseph put themselves totally at the service of the Child; the angels announce his birth with jubilation; the shepherds leave their sheep and go to see him for themselves; the wise men react with great excitement and joy and undertake a long and arduous journey to find him.
On the other hand we have Herod who is afraid and on guard and ready to kill, while the Jewish elders, astonishingly, are not terribly interested in Jesus at all - they have something far more manageable than a Messiah: the Law and the Prophets.
Yes, indeed, it is very strange the way people react to Jesus.
Some run away and some follow him; some oppose him and some become his disciples; some hate him and some worship him. Jesus is not often ignored!
Take any group of people and put Jesus in their midst and soon, very soon, there is a rearrangement of relationships. Not only will some hate him but they will also begin to hate those who love him.
Herod is fearful and defensive, cunning and deceitful. He attempts to use the naiveté of the wise men to his advantage and do away with this threat to his power. His intention is to remain in charge at all costs, even at the cost of the lives of innocents.
The Lord who humbles the proud simply sends an angel to the wise men to warn them to go home by a different way.
Surely this is the most appropriate punishment for those who consider themselves 'key stakeholders', essential to the workings of the world - simply to be bypassed!
The chief priests and scribes of the people were knowledgeable enough to point out to Herod where the child was to be born. They knew their faith. They knew the Scriptures. These were men who had mastered the Book but who had no intention of letting the Book master them. They believed the Scriptures, they read the Scriptures, but they would not live by the Scriptures. Theirs was a religion of the head, not of the heart. Theirs was a static faith centred on the words of a scroll and not on a living person - even if that person was God.
These men seem to have received the same 'treatment' from God as Herod did; They were simply bypassed. In the end they missed out not only on the joy of welcoming the Messiah, but on the salvation he offered: I have told you already: You will die in your sins. Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)
The wise men were pagans, gentiles, dogs (as some Jews called the gentiles). They came from far away, from the distant east. They were open-hearted, truth-seeking, adventurous. They longed to know the true God.
St Augustine says in his writings: You would not be looking for him if you had not already found him.
These men had already surrendered to the Lord even before they met him. No wonder they brought with them extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The wise men are instantly loveable. Their trust in the guidance of the star, their humble readiness to ask for directions, their courageous journey and their generous gifts to the one they were seeking. These men were hungry for worship. They longed to see the face of the One who had been foretold and their longing was satisfied.
So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9)
Perhaps we can conclude with another question, a question only each of us can answer for himself or herself: Where am I in my spiritual life?
- Am I like Herod - frightened to let go and fearful of Jesus?
- Am I like the elders - knowing my faith but not really letting it touch me?
- Am I like the wise men - thirsting to know the Lord and setting out afresh every day to draw closer to him?