According to St. John,
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
The liturgy for this Sunday presents our Lord’s Epiphany, a feast of light, in the midst of dark times. The text from St. Luke’s Gospel begins and ends with Herod and deals more with this nefarious figure than with the Magi, Mary, Joseph, or our Lord. Surely, our Sunday reflection should focus on Christ, yet Scripture also sets King Herod before us to contemplate as well. What do we stand to gain by considering this dark character, on the feast of light and hope?
Was Herod even capable of having an epiphany?
The Magi prostrated themselves before God, the Christ Child, in the presence of Joseph and Mary his mother. Yet Herod was not the type to bow before another man; men bowed before Herod, not the other way around.
He had his chance. When the Magi came inquiring, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,” he didn’t brush them off. He took interest and looked into it further:
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
Herod did his research. He listened to the experts and heard… only what he wanted to hear.
Herod didn’t have an Epiphany: he may have heard but he did not listen; he inquired but he only sought self-advantage. He showed interest in the Magi, but he wasn’t open to what they had to say.
Herod was too wise, in the worldly sense, for his own good. He knew where to look, for he turned to Divine Revelation for answers. He held secret meetings with the Magi, and placated them, assuring them that he wanted to pay the child homage too. His plan was very calculated.
A clever, cunning man, but not wise – that is, not if we call wisdom a virtue – is it possible for a man like this to see the light?
We want to say yes. But we already know how it turned out for Herod.
The Letter of St. John quoted above continues:
Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure,
as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness,
for sin is lawlessness.
You know that he was revealed to take away sins,
and in him there is no sin.
No one who remains in him sins;
no one who sins has seen him or known him. (1 John 3:3-6)
On account of his presumption, Herod set himself up to fail. He stands as a dark figure outshined by Christ, the light of the world, in the Epiphany narrative. Those who choose to walk by the light can live in hope, just as the Holy Family did throughout their ordeal with Herod and afterword, when Herod’s time came to its determinate end.
As St. John testified in the Prologue to his Gospel, referring to Christ:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
Another possible translation of the Greek could be that “the darkness did not comprehend it.” Both renderings are pertinent here. Perhaps Herod was not even in a position to comprehend the light of Christ, due to poor choices he had previously made. As a great American sage once wrote: “You can see the stars and still not see the light.” (I’ll let you google that one yourself).
Again, we refer to the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which reminds us to focus on who we are called to be, in Christ, by contrasting the worldly figure of Herod to the children of God:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-14)
Enjoy the Feast of the Epiphany!