Tag Archives: Herod

Sunday Sermon: the Epiphany of the three Magi

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Any number of times over the years the inspiration for these “Sunday Sermon” pieces has been drawn from some idea put forward by the priests at my church.

Today, Father Sean English provided that inspiration with his sermon in which he spoke of the “Three Kings” in relation to today’s celebration of the Epiphany.

The Epiphany goes by a few other names as well, depending on your cultural background or the specific church to which you may belong. The most frequent are for “Little Christmas” or “Three Kings Day” celebrations.

In today’s world, when someone is said to have an “epiphany” it means that some sudden realization has come upon them. A moment of clarity in which something fundamental is revealed to them.

The “three kings” or “three wise men” or even the “Magi” as they have alternately been known through history are credited with both having and passing on such an epiphany following the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

The word “Magi” is an ancient one. It referred to those who practiced what was known as magic, usually including incorporation and study of alchemy and astrology. These were extremely learned men, bordering on what today would be called scientists more than true magicians.

As Father Sean explained today, the Magi of Jesus’ time were not necessarily aligned with any particular religion. However, they were acquainted with all faith systems, including Judaism.

The Magi may have been followers or even priests of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. No matter, they certainly would know of the ancient Jewish prophecy regarding the coming of a Savior.

The western Christian churches, including the Catholic Church founded by Jesus himself, believe and teach that there were three of these wise Magi men. That theory was drawn from writings showing that three gifts were brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One thing is almost certain, they were not “kings” in the classic sense of the word. The reference to “three kings” is almost certainly drawn from prophecies such as Psalm 72 which said “all kings shall fall down before him” in the Jewish Torah, or Old Testament.

The three were said to have come “from the east”, drawn by a star in the sky which their calculations led them to believe would lead to the Savior foretold in the Jewish prophetic writings.

In the western tradition, they went by the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and hailed originally from Persia, India, and Babylonia respectively. Some claim that they actually are meant to represent Europe, Asia, and Africa.

As the Magi neared the end of their long journey, possibly from a home base in the Parthian Empire, the three received word that King Herod, the ruler of Judea, wished an audience with them.

At this meeting, Herod asked that when the Magi found this newborn future “King of the Jews”, that they return and let him know the location of the child. Herod alleged that this was so that he too could go and worship the child. However, his later actions revealed that Herod was actually plotting to kill the child, thus defeating the prophecy and a snuff out a future threat to his rule.

The traditional date of the Epiphany within Christianity is January 6th. However, the Catholic Church celebrates on the Sunday falling between the 2nd and 8th. It is celebrated on other dates by other Christian churches.

When you sing or hear the Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas“, January 6th is that 12th day – exactly twelve days having passed since December 25th, Christmas Day.

The traditions and teachings hold that the Magi followed the star until it came to rest over the little town of Bethlehem in Judea. There, inside of what was essentially a cave-like shelter, lying in a manger, the Magi found the child.

Surrounded by the child’s parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as shepherds who had been visiting since the child’s birth, the wise men presented their gifts.

As pointed out in an article at The Telegraph, the gifts which the three Magi bore were each presented for a specific reason:

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

The realization, the moment of clarity, the “epiphany” experienced by the Magi had come with the revelation that this child, this Jesus born in such humble circumstances, was indeed the Savior of prophecy. And this Savior came not only to and for the Jewish people, but all people.

When they had completed their visit, the Magi decided not to return to their homeland by the same route which they had arrived. This would take them past Herod, whose true intentions had been revealed to them. And so they returned to their homes a different way.

It is important that we not only accept Jesus as our personal Savior, but that we do our best to practice that faith and pass it along to our families and other loved ones.

Even should they decide not to follow our example, it remains important to continue demonstrating our faith. At some point, we changed. We accepted Christ into our lives. Our continuing example could prove to be the very thing that opens the eyes, minds, and hearts of others.

This leads us to a final important point that Father Sean made in his sermon. Each of us, having had the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to us, should return to our lives in a different way than we traveled prior to that moment. That pivotal revelation marked our individual, personal epiphany.

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The Nativity story

On December 1st, 2006, one of the most underrated Christmas movies of all-time was released, and if you have never had a chance or made the time to watch “The Nativity Story” you should make this the year. I’ve noticed that it is playing a few times in the coming days.

The movie features a starring performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young Australian actress who was just 16 years old at the time of filming.

She delivers a commanding yet understated performance as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a manner that anyone familiar with her story would find credible.

Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac takes on the hurt skeptic-turned strong and loyal supporting partner Joseph role well here.

The strongest male acting performance is turned in by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, familiar to many from his starring role as Caesar in the HBO epic series ‘Rome’. Hinds gives perhaps the finest performance of Herod to ever grace the silver screen.

Brought to life here by ‘Twilight’ director Catherine Hardwicke, ‘The Nativity Story’ is, as always, all about the story itself.

As one of the film’s taglines tells it, the story is about “a message foretold in the heavens…a prophecy that would threaten an empire…a miracle that would change the world.”

There is nothing overly dramatic about that tagline. It is the simple truth.

No matter what your view in your own life towards Christianity in particular or religion in general, there is no valid way to argue the fact that the life and death of Jesus Christ and the message that he delivered has changed and shaped the entire world over the ensuing two millenia.

This film and the whole of the Nativity story covers that period in the life of Mary and Joseph from the time of their engagement on through to the birth of their child.

The story is far from comfortable. Mary is a teenage girl from the small town of Nazareth who is forced into an unwanted engagement with a much older carpenter whom she barely knows.

During the time of their engagement and while still a virgin, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who tells her that God has chosen her to bear His Son. Mary is also told that her cousin Elizabeth, believed far too old to bear a child, is also pregnant. Both pregnancies end up coming to fruition.

Joseph becomes understandably angered by the fact that his young fiancee, with whom he knows he himself has not had relations, has turned up pregnant. Prepared to set her aside quietly, he is also visited by an angel who tells him of God’s special purpose in their lives. In staying together despite the scandal, both are ostracized by their community.

During this same time, King Herod, who had been appointed as the Rome-backed ruler of the small Jewish nation of Judea, was fearing the realization of an ancient Jewish prophecy. This prophecy revealed that a ruler would emerge from the lineage of the ancient King David.

Herod decides to command a census of all people in which they must return to their ancestral homes in the hopes that he could sort out the identity of this future challenger to his rule.

Joseph was from the town of Bethlehem, known as the City of David, and so was forced to return there for the census. He took Mary along with him, and during the trip she began to appreciate him for his good nature and their affection for one another grew.

On arrival at Bethlehem they can find nowhere to stay thanks to the increased population due to the census, and they are forced to stay in what amounts to a cave-like stable.

While Herod is fretting and Mary goes into contractions, three ‘Magi’, or wise kings, arrive from Persia at Herod’s court in Jerusalem. They have been studying the prophecy and also believe that the time is at hand for the birth of this special king. Learning from them that the king is a child to be born and not a grown man, Herod orders the murder of all babies in Bethlehem.

As we all well know, Herod’s plan is unsuccessful. Mary gives birth in the stable, laying her boy child in a manger and naming him Jesus. Shepherds tending their flocks nearby have been told of the miraculous birth by an angel, and they show up to greet the newborn. They are quickly followed by the Magi, who come bearing gifts for the young king and the family.

Just as Herod’s troops arrive and begin their unimaginable slaughter, Joseph is again visited in a dream by an angel who warns him of the pending attack. Joseph rouses Mary from sleep, they gather the infant Son of God, and make their way out of Bethlehem just ahead of the wave of death falling across the city.

This is the story of the birth of the baby Jesus, who would grow to become the Christ, the saviour of mankind, a great king as foretold in the prophecies. A king not of this world, but of a higher kingdom ruling over all mankind based on God’s laws and His own teachings of love and peace.

It is the story of Mary and Joseph saying “Yes” to God’s calling, and overcoming numerous obstacles placed in front of them by family, community, and royalty to bring Jesus into the world. It is simple and yet commanding and compelling.

It is ‘The Nativity Story’, the beginning chapter in the greatest story ever told in the entire history of humanity. It is a film suitable for  the whole family, and one that everyone would enjoy, whether for its value in faith, or its value to history.

The birth of Jesus Christ

A COMBINED LUKE/MATTHEW…..

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Now in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first census and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you glad tidings of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

The voice crying out in the wilderness

During this Christmas season we are celebrating the imminent arrival on earth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Over 2,000 years ago that same arrival was anticipated in reality by the man who has become known in some quarters as the ‘Precursor’, the one who came just before the Christ.

His given name was John, and he has become known to most in the world as ‘John the Baptist’. He was born right around the first year A.D., and was a cousin of Jesus Christ, their respective mothers having been first cousins.

John’s mother was Elizabeth, and she was married to a priest named Zachary. They were said to be good people, “both just before God” as St. Luke later wrote.

There is a great story about John’s birth. Zachary and Elizabeth were elderly and without child, wanted one, and constantly prayed for a child. Zachary even utilized his priestly position for this purpose.

One day an angel appeared to Zachary and told him that they would have a son, that they should name him John, and that the son would be “great before the Lord” as well as a number of other revelations concerning the son. Zachary did not believe, and for his disbelief after praying for this very outcome, he was struck dumb (unable to speak) until the birth of the child.

Another great story linking the births of John and Jesus is that of the ‘Assumption’. During the sixth month of her pregnancy, Elizabeth learned of Mary’s own pregnancy and went to visit her. Upon being greeted by Mary, Elizabeth’s baby ‘leaped for joy in her womb’. It was during this visit that Elizabeth uttered the words that have become known to us as the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer.

John was born approximately six months before Jesus’ own birth. He was said to have “grown and been strengthened in spirit” before going into the desert wilderness for spiritual renewal and strengthening.

He emerged from the desert just before Christ’s own ministry and was said to look like a wild man, wearing clothing “of camel’s hair, a leather girdle about his loins” and eating “locusts and wild honey”.

The strength of his personality, the sincerity of his delivery, and his message that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” drew many people out to hear him and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. When the religious leaders came out to see what the excitement was about he famously rebuked them by calling them “Ye brood of vipers!”

Some thought that John might indeed by the Christ, but John set the matter straight and clarified his own role by saying “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!'” and “I baptize you with water; but there is coming one mightier than I, whose shoes I am not fit to loose; he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”

Eventually Jesus came out to John in order to be baptized.  John said to him “It is I who should be baptized by you”, but Christ made John perform the baptism. As Christ was raised from the water a voice came down from heaven saying “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus went on to gather his Apostles and disciples, and begin his public ministry. John continued his baptism and preaching. At a point, John was taken into custody and held under arrest, the charges being long disputed. What is known is that Herod ultimately and finally had John beheaded.

In these days leading up to Christmas we should always remember the words of that great Precursor, the voice of one crying out in the desert: “Make straight the way of the Lord!” We again prepare to celebrate his original coming to us, knowing that not only is he with us to the end of the age, but also that some day he will physically come to us yet again.

A star, a star, shining in the night

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Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.

It was a common ancient belief that a new star would appear at the occasion of a ruler’s birth.

On one particular, memorable night just over two millennia ago now, three king’s from the east arrived at Jerusalem asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at it’s rising and have come to do him homage.

When the news of the eastern king’s arrival and questioning reached the ears of Herod the Great, who was set by the Romans as the ruler of the land encompassing Jerusalem, he gathered all the learned men of his people and inquired of them “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They told Herod that old prophetic writings said the place would be Bethlehem.

King Herod called for a meeting with the eastern kings, and he questioned them as to details of the star’s appearance. He then sent them on their way, asking that when they should find the child “bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.

Now Herod was a plotter and schemer. His reign was reported as “one of continual fear of plots and he does not hesitate to execute his own relatives and children.” Herod meant not to worship the newborn King, but to kill him.

When the kings from the east set out again, they quickly found the same star, and it led them to a house in Bethlehem of Judah where they found the newborn child Jesus with Mary his mother. They bowed and knelt before him, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The latter two items are extracts of tree sap, used to make incense that when mixed with other items such as nuts or roots makes wonderful scents.

Joseph had brought his young wife here to the little town of Bethlehem while she was still pregnant in order to stand for the census.

Each family had to go to its own ancestral town to register, and since Joseph was from the house and family of David this was their destination. On arrival in town they found no room at any of the inns, and so had to take shelter in the stable room of a local house.

While they were there in Bethlehem, it came time for Mary to have the baby, and she soon gave birth to a son who the couple named “Jesus”. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger to sleep.

Soon the couple was visited by some local shepherds who told them they had been visited in a field by angels who had told them “today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.

The young mother Mary and her older and more worldly husband Joseph knew that their child was special, but these visits from the shepherds and the three wise men, three kings from afar, was the first real-world concrete sign to them that mankind would find something special in their son. How astounded and grateful at this attention and these gifts they must have been.

After paying their homage, the kings prepared for their return journey and a stop to tell Herod of all that had transpired, and where he might go to find the child and worship him as well. But they were visited in a dream and warned of Herod’s wicked intentions. Being three wise men indeed, they returned to their native countries by another way.

In a similar dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph saying “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose, took Mary and Jesus, and fled with them to Egypt as the angel had instructed them. There they would stay until Herod’s death.

Herod soon realized that the three kings were not returning and he grew furious, ordering the murder of every boy in Bethlehem and its surrounding towns who were two years old and under. He believed that he was playing for keeps against a future king, and he would leave no margin for error in eliminating this potential threat. Little did he know the reality of the power that he was up against.

After Herod’s death, the angel again appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus and return to the land of Israel. While en route, in yet another dream Joseph was warned that Herod’s son had taken over this region, and so was directed to take his family to the region of Galilee instead. Joseph took his family there, and settled in the town of Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had previously been living prior to the census.

This is the warmly familiar story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The baby born in Bethlehem, who slept in a manger surrounded by barnyard animals in his infancy, would indeed grow to be a King, just not of the type that Herod had feared. He would grow to teach us to love God and to love one another, and ultimately he would die so that we all might live in eternity.

It all began two thousand years ago when a star appeared in the sky over Bethlehem. This Christmas season be sure to remember and reflect on all of these events, and the dramatic influence that they eventually had on your own life. Perhaps while you are looking up at the sky on a clear night you too will see that star, the one that brought us goodness and light.