Solemnity of the Epiphany – January 2, 2022

This past September, the James Bond franchise released the latest movie installment in its British spy adventure series.  According to film critics, all the major characters in the story are very conflicted, have serious personality defects, and struggle with traumatic events in the past.  This might be a case of art imitating life; no person’s life is without a measure of tragedy. 

Interestingly, some of the troubled, broken characters in the movie make heroic sacrifices for the sake of wider society while other characters of similar background degenerate into depravity and destructive behavior.  One sees similar outcomes throughout society. 

King Herod, who features prominently in today’s Gospel reading, was well known to be extraordinarily insecure, neurotic, and vicious.  He murdered several members of his family whom he considered to be threats to his political power.  The Gospel author alludes to his reputation when he wrote that, upon hearing of the existence of a new King of the Jews, Herod “was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Mt. 2:3)  Evidently, Herod was the sort of person who liked to inflict his personal concerns on those around him. 

As our culture is so heavily influenced by the social sciences, we might be tempted to wonder if Herod’s insecurities were the result of being traumatized as an infant by falling from the baby seat in a grocery store shopping cart.  Perhaps, he suffered from abandonment issues because his parents forgot to pick him from day care when he was a toddler.  Perhaps, he had a particularly demanding teacher in middle school which left him with anxieties about his abilities.  The Gospel author addresses none of these avenues of inquiry because they are of no real importance with regard to Herod’s murderous tendencies. 

While we know nothing of the backgrounds of the magi, it’s easy to imagine that they had lives even more difficult than Herod’s.  They served in the Imperial Court of the Persian Empire, a place not known for its benevolent leaders.  We cannot know why the magi reverenced the newborn Jesus while Herod wished to kill him.  Further, it is unimportant that we understand how each of those men came to lead the lives they led.  The only thing important to the Gospel author is what each one chose. 

Every person born into this world faces struggles, deprivations, and disappointments; some people become extraordinarily virtuous, while others become extraordinarily vicious.  The important difference between the two classes of people is not how their lives where shaped by external circumstances but how they chose to live.  The Gospel author wants us to measure our lives on the basis of the single criterion of honesty, that is, the degree to which we are honest with ourselves and others about the source of our behavior. 

It has become so routine as to be obligatory that one finds scapegoats to blame for one’s immoral behavior.  Rioters and thieves blame their crimes on the unfair actions of others.  Murderers, insurrectionists, and terrorists do the same.  While it is true that some people act unjustly, it is never true that someone else’s injustice equates to permission or obligation to add to the injustice in the world. 

Just like in the movies, the difference between a hero and a villain is never the result of any event in the past.  The difference between vice and virtue is only, ever one’s choices in the present.  It is of the utmost importance, then, that we are brutally honest with ourselves: no one makes us do anything against our will.  If we can be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our behavior is solely the result of our own choosing. 

Matthew’s Gospel gives us all the available options in life: they are two.  We can choose hatred and violence (like Herod), or we can choose reverence and decency (like the magi).  The past events that influence us will be forgotten eventually, but the consequences of our actions will be remembered.  The possessions, friends, and graves of Herod and the magi have long since been lost and forgotten; their reputations remain. What choice will you make about how you will be remembered?  The honest answer acknowledges that each person chooses the life she or he leads.