This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.
Our local parish recently reopened after weather-related damage forced extensive renovations. It’s quite beautiful now, with lovely stained-glass windows in a modern style, some geometric and others above the altar with what appeared to me for months to be various pastoral images.
It took me months, I’m sad to say, to recognize that the six panels depicted the first six days of Creation from Genesis. It clicked during Mass one day, and I actually giggled a little at my lack of comprehension. The final image features a silhouette of a man and woman looking out over a landscape, perhaps choosing where to go and how to get there.
Today marks the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, and our readings today offer us a few such epiphanies to ponder. They remind us of the world-shaking event of the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus, one that calls us to choose at every step of our lives whether to recognize it or not. The birth of Jesus forced those choices from the very beginning, and still calls us to our own epiphanies about the nature of the world and our place in it.
This Gospel reading, and especially its end, recalls this poem about choices:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
This clearly applies to the Magi, but let’s start from the beginning. And by that, I mean In the beginning… The Lord created the heavens and Earth and all that they contain, and created Adam and Eve to live with Him in the Trinitarian life. Unfortunately, they rejected the Lord and chose instead to compete with Him for worldly power — a choice they had the freedom to make, but which estranged humanity from the Lord ever since.
And ever since, the Lord has offered paths to travel back to His grace, while we routinely choose the alternative. Our reading today from Isaiah reminds the Israelites of Jerusalem’s true mission in salvation: not as a worldly power, but the capital of a nation of priests and prophets to bring all other nations to the Lord:
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
If Jerusalem chooses the path less traveled by, as Frost puts it, the world will come to their door with its wealth and love. Instead, as we know, the Israelites repeatedly chose to travel on the well-trodden road of earthly power rather than in God’s mission. They adopted the idolatry of the nations the Israelites were supposed to enlighten, their kings became greedy and grasping, and their mission of salvation utterly failed. This happens repeatedly, even after the restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. By the time of Herod the Great, Israel’s political and temple leadership are far more focused on insular power than conversion.
That brings us to today’s Gospel reading, in which we see an even more dramatic example of this choice as well as its life-or-death implications. Herod himself and the three wise men are forced to consider the choice between worldly power and cooperation in salvation. They come to very different conclusions, and the result has profound outcomes for the people of Bethlehem and the world.
Herod, a corrupt and powerful vassal king to the Roman empire, sees the birth of the Messiah not as an opportunity to transform himself and his kingdom through the Word of God but as a threat to his power. His corruption through greed and avarice is complete, so much so that he’s willing to slaughter innocent children to prevent any peasant challenger to his house from emerging. Herod hears the magi explain the nature of the child but does not listen, just as he uses the temple he builds for his own vanity and claim on power rather than as an opportunity to serve the Lord. His feet are firmly on the commonly traveled path, the path that Adam and Eve first created with their footsteps out of Eden.
The three magi, on the other hand, have wealth but also wisdom on its use. They have immersed themselves in the scriptures and watched for the signs not for their own ambitions but to discern the will of the Lord. In fact, they appear to be rather naive to worldly ambitions in their decision to first consult with Herod at all, but the hand of the Lord is clearly in play. This is another chance for the leadership caste of Judah to choose the correct path.
The magi do not fall into Herod’s trap. They continue their path and pay homage to Jesus, leaving their wealth at His feet for the protection and sustenance of His family. Having cooperated with grace this far, the Lord makes the danger to themselves and Jesus known to the magi. And even here, the magi have a choice: they could very easily have gone back to Herod and claimed worldly power and riches by betraying Jesus. That would have been the road much more commonly traveled, too.
Instead, as Frost wrote, they took the road less traveled … and it made all the difference.
Just as in the stained-glass image in our church, that choice is ever before us as well. Do we choose sin and worldly power, comfort, and indulgence? Or do we take the narrow path to the Lord? Even if we stumble along that path, wander back and forth at times, and get lost occasionally, that choice still matters. It is a matter of will, and the Lord will guide our hearts as long as we do not close them entirely to Him. Don’t despair if we can’t be as wise as the magi — just pray for guidance in that darkness. The Lord wants to welcome all of us back as we choose that road less traveled by.
The front page image is a detail from “Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423. Currently on display at the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.