Jerusalem’s Priorities — And Ours

Was the world of Herod and the Magi so different from our world?

Michele Rocca (1671–1752), “Adoration of the Magi”
Michele Rocca (1671–1752), “Adoration of the Magi” (photo: Public Domain)

The readings for Epiphany, especially Matthew’s Gospel, pose a paradox. We have two sets of protagonists. One is “Magi from the east,” essentially astronomer-astrologers who, guided by their observations of the Book of Nature and their assorted ideas, come seeking “the newborn king of the Jews.” The second is “Herod… and all Jerusalem” who, guided by the Book, are “greatly troubled.” Isaiah counseled Jerusalem to “rise up in splendor” with the Messiah’s advent, but the establishment seems quite content to stay abed, pulling the covers over its heads to shut out the morning light (cf. Romans 13:12) of the Radiant Dawn (cf. O Antiphon for Dec. 21).

Picture the scene. Magi, bereft of written revelation but guided by nature, show up to ask the Jerusalem establishment where the Messiah is born. Herod, who was hardly a “king of the Jews” in the biblical meaning of one committed to the faith, directs his inquirers’ question to the priests. They flip through their Rolodex, pull out the appropriate index card, and reply, “Yep, like Micah wrote, Bethlehem,” David’s city.

The paradox is clear. Those with partial and obscure knowledge but openness to God are full of joy and seeking; those with everything at their fingertips but closed to God are upset and scheming.

Herod didn’t care about the Messiah, except as possible competition. His horizons were far more limited to preserving the sinecure he held since 37 B.C. If he had no personal feelings against killing three of his own boys, some unknown Messiah would be of little interest except insofar as he impinged on Herod’s turf.

Matthew doesn’t directly tell us what the Jerusalem establishment did, but there’s no suggestion anybody hurried out with the Magi to check out the long-awaited Messiah. Consider that nobody accompanied the Magi: they simply got the instruction to “bring … word.”

Was Herod’s Jerusalem so different from our world? As Catholics, recipients of the Word and heirs of the teaching magisterium, we too can pull out the appropriate index cards with the information we need. But that teaching often doesn’t make us happy. In fact, it often “greatly troubles” us, too — especially in sexual ethics.

Consider the news last week of how United Methodism chose to disunite over sodomy.

Consider the likely conflicts in 2020, an election year, over abortion, especially among “personally opposed” Catholic politicians. Vatican II makes very clear what the Catholic perspective on abortion is: the Council calls abortion and infanticide “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et spes, 51). Not “rights.” Not “choices.” Not subjects of “dialogue.” Not “sacred ground.” Not crimes to which I should be “personally opposed” while not “imposing my beliefs on my fellow citizens.” A Catholic who believes in what his Church teaches knows abortion and infanticide (closely related, given the pressure today to defend abortion for any reason up to birth as a “right” to be “shouted”) are “unspeakable crimes.”

Yes, some may parry, but so are other abuses of human dignity in a “consistent ethic of life.” Well, it’s telling that Vatican II already in some sense anticipates that. “Abortion” appears twice in Gaudium et spes. The other reference — in no. 27 — enumerates as “infamies” other violations of human dignity, including genocide, mutilation and “willful self-destruction” (which encompasses suicide, whether self- or physician-assisted and “gender reassignment”), trafficking, exploitation of workers, subhuman conditions, etc. But the Council specifically singles out “abortion and infanticide” — uniquely and without insertion into any further catalog — as “crimes” that deserve to be what one could call our “preeminent issue.” It’s pretty clear that the Council deemed abortion distinct and particularly heinous.

Lest some argue I am comparing apples and oranges, using the Epiphany Gospel to score today’s pro-abortion politicians, let me remind you that Sunday’s Gospel — over which infanticide hangs unspoken — ends at Matthew 2:12, with the Magi going home “by another way.” Verses 13-18 made the unspoken spoken as Herod, feeling betrayed by the Magi, unleashes his own solution in Bethlehem and environs by eliminating “growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

The Magi also give us some sense of our appropriate relationship to the “Book of Nature.” They see in the heavens the designs of God, but designs intended to lead and guide them. Nature is, at least in some sense for them, what it is in Genesis: at the service of mankind, not to abuse but to use. They “divined” truths from the moment of a star… which led them to the truly Divine One. That lesson is particularly relevant today, when the environmental movement sometimes quasi-apotheosizes the natural world while reducing man—“whom you made little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) — into nothing more than a troublesome carbon footprint.

Persons, especially the person of the Messiah, are the focus of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s not of the priestly caste in the Jerusalem establishment and clearly not of Herod, as subsequent events show. It’s inchoate in the thinking and action of the Magi, who are still at least open to where God leads them. What about for us?