“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” - Matthew 2:2Last Epiphany, I recall, I was curious about the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today I am struck by the idea of paying homage, in particular, paying homage to a newborn babe.
It's hard for me to identify with a culture where kings were born and not made. Nowadays we're all so much more sophisticated, aren't we? We might enjoy watching royal weddings and getting caught up in the glamour of kings and queens and princes and princesses, but we don't take them seriously. Especially for us Americans, royalty is a quaint relic of a bygone age. Real power lies elsewhere.
Not so with our forebears. Power was seen as so essentially vested in those born to the throne, that the idea of paying obeisance before a cradle was unexceptional. The office held the power, and it was transferred unquestionably to the legitimate office holder.
In Matthew's telling of the story, the sign of the star and the prophetic words about Bethlehem were enough to confer legitimacy on the magi's claim to be seeking the "king of the Jews." Herod doesn't doubt that some strange Bethlehem babe might be the king -- he fears.
We could talk about Herod, and how he was violent and paranoid; history verifies that he killed his father-in-law, several wives, and two sons, among many others, all in reaction to real or imagined threats to his life and power. Matthew even has him killing all the infants in and around Bethlehem, just in case.
What could this wealthy and powerful man have to fear from a baby? If that baby is the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel, it reinforces what Herod knows already: He is illegitimate. Herod was not ethnically a Jew; his father had found favor with the Roman Powers-That-Be.
What does it do to me when I get a whiff of my own illegitimacy?
I want something or want to hold onto something I already have, and I feel like there is something threatening that hold. I want to control my kids even though they are growing up and need to make more and more of their own mistakes. I want to live like I'm rich even when the numbers say that means living beyond my means. I want people to say what I want them to say and do what I want them to do and believe what I want them to believe. What's more, I want to keep my house and my car, my kids and my husband, my friends and my various involvements. I don't want any of it to change. I don't want to lose anything or anyone.
Not one of those things legitimately belongs to me.
I heard a story today at church about a family who just experienced a terrible and unexpected loss. Far from home, the dad died where he stood. He was 44.
We all know that three weeks ago 26 innocent people were gunned down in a school.
I want power over all of it. I don't want dads or kids or moms or daughters or sons to die like that. I want to be the lord of life and death. I want to be the king.
But I'm not. My illegitimate claim smells like fear, smells like anger. Herod's did too.
I have the same choices Herod did. When I'm faced with the limits of my power and authority, with the temptation to claim what I want to be mine and isn't, I can succumb to anger and fear. I can lash out and "kill" those around me -- with my sharp tongue or my icy silence, with my self-centered obsessions and my emotional outbursts and withdrawals.
Or I can go and pay homage.
The newborn king doesn't, in himself, demand worship, only milk and warmth and dry pants and love. His legitimacy comes from elsewhere, from God. God tells us, shows us, that reverence is due to the babe, because he is the one whom God has chosen and anointed (in other words, the king or messiah). God's Spirit doesn't require the tools of death to claim God's power. Quite the contrary.
It is in smallness and vulnerability, in the cradle, on the cross, that God shows us what true power looks like. There is nothing to be angry about, nothing to fear. We need only bring our gifts, our gold, frankincense, and myrrh, our talents and failures and wishes and dreams. Warm blankets and a ham.