The Epiphany invites us to pray with the three Magi, the gifts they bring, the baby and his parents. The dark side of the visit appears in the reaction of Herod and his court to the announcement of a new king. Matthew also offers in the person of Herod an opportunity to reflect on the central social issue of the use and abuse of power
Three different kinds of power are present in the story of the Magi. The power of special knowledge is possessed by the wise men. They know the Jewish prophecies. On the basis of that knowledge they discovered a star and followed it to pay homage to the new king. The power of dominance is in King Herod. If people rebel against such domination, Herod has power to punish them for disobedience. Finally, the power in service is only hinted since this story occurs at the beginning of the Gospel. As the child develops and becomes an adult, he will show the power of service in his actions, cures and teachings.
Investigating the power of knowledge shows the place of wisdom in human life. The Magi spent their lives advancing the knowledge of their time. This advancement not only consisted of collecting facts, but also signified the presence of divinity in the world. They learned of the arrival of the new king and acted on that knowledge by taking an arduous journey from the east to Israel to honor the new king. In their case, true knowledge led to true worship.
The most striking use and abuse of power happens after the Magi arrive at Herod’s royal court. They announce the arrival of a new king, but the proclamation threatens Herod and his court. Will this king overthrow Herod’s power and his followers? Herod summons his seers to confirm that a king is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod acts like any despot; he decides to destroy the new king. He will not allow an upstart king to usurp his throne. Telling a bold lie, he feigns that he wants the Magi to return and tell him where the new king is located so he too can go and worship this ruler. When he realizes that the Magi have gone home without telling him the whereabouts of the king, he slaughters all baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem. Power of dominance has led to lying and tragedy.
Finally, we look at the power in service. Since we know the kind of person the baby eventually became, we see that one can actually exercise power by caring for others. Jesus grew up in a devout Jewish family who lived out the commands of the law. Love God. Love your neighbor. Take care of the widow, orphan and alien. He taught people how to lead truly human lives based on care for the outcasts. He cured, taught, suffered and ultimately died for all. He demonstrates power centered on the service of others.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.