They went home by a different route!
This little detail from the Gospel for the Solemnity of the Epiphany always sticks out for me. Given the fact that this Sunday is all about the manifestation of Jesus as God, King and human, it may not be all that important. Yet it always manages to evoke a response whenever I read this Gospel.
The infancy narrative of St. Matthew's Gospel is heavily influenced by the fact that this culture is driven by the need to protect one's honor and to avoid any hint of shame. St. Matthew begins the Gospel with an elaborate and honor-filled genealogy tracing Jesus' origin back to Abraham and David. He follows the genealogy with the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to St. Joseph. It takes a message from an angel to get Joseph to take Mary into his home even though he knows that the child she carries is not his. Joseph had decided to put Mary away quietly. In this way, he could act honorably. However, the angel also plays the "honor card" by telling Joseph that God is honoring him by giving him the care of His Son.
That story is followed immediately by the story of the visit of the magi from the East, another honor story. In their search, the magi encounter King Herod, the epitome of dishonor and shame. Herod deals with the message about a newborn King in secret. Anything done in secret in this society is, by definition, a cause of shame and dishonor. When the Magi find Jesus, they pay him homage offering him gifts. They recognize him as honorable and magnify that honor by prostrating themselves before him. Afterwards the magi decide to return to their own country by a different route. St. Matthew is making the point that these honorable men are not entering into the dishonorable plot that King Herod has already concocted.
This is where the last line comes into play. They went home by a different route. I am convinced of the fact that anyone who truly encounters Jesus cannot come away from the encounter without being changed. The Magi are not Judeans. Yet they worship the King of the Judeans. They have been changed by their encounter. Conversion can only happen through such an encounter. When we meet Jesus, the personification of God's mercy and compassion, our lives cannot help but be changed. It is for this reason that I cannot read this story without thinking that it is a very subtle conversion story. You and I are being asked to travel through life by a different route.
Doing things differently is never easy. If it were easy, conversion would not be all that difficult. If conversion were not difficult, then the prophets would not have been killed for suggesting that people needed to change. In the Gospel of St. Mark, the first Gospel to be written, the first words of the Gospel are spoken by the Baptist, "Repent!" So when I read this Gospel story, I always end up asking myself: Is there any possibility that St. Matthew slipped this little detail into the narration of this incident as a cleverly concealed message about the need for all of us to imitate these honorable characters from the East?
The Christmas Season is generally characterized by beautiful music and by thoughts of joy and peace. We encounter the story of Jesus’ birth and are smitten by the charm of the poignant story of Mary giving birth in a stable surrounded by barnyard animals. Yet we all know that the Gospel way of life is about conversion, about turning away from the darkness of the sinful world and turning toward the light that is Jesus. The star of Bethlehem led honorable men to a stable in their search for a king. The light that is Jesus beckons us to an encounter so that we, like the sages of old, will be changed by meeting Jesus. In a few minutes we will meet him in communion, the sacrament that assures us that the Incarnation of Jesus is still working in the lives of all who heed the Gospel admonition to “repent.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator