Joy or Fear?

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Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

We see in this Gospel two distinct reactions to the news of the birth of Jesus. The first, that of the magi, is a reaction of joy, wonder, and a desire to search out the new king to worship Him and bestow upon Him the finest of gifts, gifts that would prepare Him for His mission as king, savior, and sacrifice. The second reaction, that of Herod, is one of fear. Jesus is perceived as a threat to Herod’s power, a threat that must be destroyed. In the very next Gospel pericope, when Herod realizes he has been deceived by the magi, he orders the murder of all male children under the age of two years in Bethlehem. These are the Holy Innocents, whom the Church raises up as martyrs for Christ.

For two millennia now, people have responded to Jesus largely in one of two ways: joy or fear. It’s not possible to be neutral when it comes to Jesus. He didn’t leave us that option. He didn’t intend to. He came announcing the kingdom of God and declared Himself to be the line of demarcation between those who would embrace the kingdom and those who would reject it. Those who attempt a third way, if you will, who minimize Jesus to be nothing more than a holy man who taught us to love one another, are even more misguided than those who reject Jesus outright and are hostile to His message. At least those who reject Jesus realize Who He claimed to be and the consequences of that claim.

Epiphany is a word that means “manifestation.” By way of the magi’s visit, Jesus is manifested to the nations. The magi were not Jews and were not from Palestine. They were pagans, from the east, who saw the light of Jesus’ star and were drawn to follow it. By following the light, they came to the source of all light as a humble newborn babe lying in a manger. Yet they realized that this humble child would cause a radical shift in history that would last for all time and determine the fate of all people. They embraced the child, worshipped Him, and gifted Him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh but, more importantly, with their faith in His mission.

Herod, too, realized that the birth of this child represented a seismic shift, only he regarded it as one that would cause the fall of his own kingdom and his throne. He set out, then, to destroy the child. He could not embrace the child’s mission, for to do so would be the destruction of his own importance. Unlike the magi, Herod would not bow to the child. Instead, he attempted to upend the plan of God by his own cruel hand.

These are our choices: joy or fear. Either we embrace the mission of Jesus and gift Him with our faith, or we reject His mission as a threat to our own importance and seek to destroy Him. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Dt 30:19).

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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