Issue 1: 5 Jan 2021

A New Year Epiphany – Choose Wonder Over Fear

When we go to the cinema, we have to suspend our critical sensibilities to enter into the full power of the story. A similar concession is necessary to reap the full benefit of the story of the first Epiphany. Have you ever wondered, for example, why the wise men, who have been guided from the East to Jerusalem, stop there and ask directions from Herod? Surely the star could have kept doing its job and taken them all the way to Bethlehem. And why didn’t Herod follow the wise men, or at least send a spy behind them, rather than ask them to send word back to him when they had found him? Furthermore, whatever happened to these wise guys? They are the first in Matthew’s Gospel to recognize who Jesus is, and yet they vanish from Jesus’ life as quickly as they came into it.

Like many screenwriters, Matthew plays with history for another purpose. Like cinemagoers, we’re happy to suspend our questions and look beyond the story’s details so we can enjoy the profound picture that is being painted for us. And profound it is. These dreaming stargazers in Matthew’s Gospel point to the radical nature of the Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ. This story takes on an even more radical tone when we remember that Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish community. The people of Israel considered themselves to be the chosen people, and they hoped and longed to see the Messiah who God had promised to them. Yet here are three Gentiles – in other words, not among those to whom the promise had been made – who are among the first to see and believe in Jesus.

Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is at pains to show how the Jews missed out on recognizing Jesus because they were locked in their fears. King Herod is the first public official to be portrayed in such a way, but he is by no means the last or the least. Pilate is the bookend to Herod, showing a similar blindness. Matthew links these two rulers. Their fear of the threat posed by Jesus, who he is and how he lives, leads in each case to death – Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and Pilate’s murder of Jesus.

Matthew’s story is a wonderful interplay between wonder and fear. We’re told only five things about the wise men from the east: they follow the rising star; they ask directions in a foreign land; they’re overwhelmed with joy at finding the child at Bethlehem; they’re warned in a dream about Herod; and they go home by another road. This last observation is a delicious detail. One path, the familiar route, the way they knew, would have led to death; instead, they trusted their dreams and took a different path. It led to life. Unlike the wise men, Herod is frightened at the prospect of a pretender to his throne. He whips up fear in Jerusalem, and tries to trick the magi into telling him where he can find the child. But his deceit is uncovered, and he is left without knowledge. His fears spiral.

In twelve verses, Matthew paints a portrait of wonder. If we are wise followers of the Babe of Bethlehem, we need to be shrewd in dealing with power; to keep our eyes on the journey, which will bring joy and fulfilment as well as suffering; to believe in dreams; to pray that we will never be so sure of how God works in our world that we miss seeing the very thing we long to behold; and to be prepared to change course so that we can always choose life. 

Matthew also tells us that the enemy of the Christian life is fear. So often our reaction to Jesus can be like Herod’s. We can feel threatened and frightened. We want to silence the voices that call us to live out the reign of God, and listen instead to those that whisper of the costs involved. Fear entraps us and infects those around us. We are often most fearful when we risk losing power and control, so we lie, become deceitful, and cheat to maintain our position at all costs. As with Herod and Pilate, that way ends in death.

So this story is far more than a travel log of exotic Persian kings. It’s the story of the choices that lie before all who want to worship Jesus. Once again, at the dawn of the New Year, the choice is ours: do we want to live in wonder or in fear? 

Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Does it All Mean? A Guide to Being More Faithful, Hopeful, and Loving (Paulist Press).

This article first appeared on The Tablet. Used with permission.