Today we explore the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, a piece of scripture that provides us with one of the most beloved narratives in Christian culture: the visit of the wise men.
It may seem awkward to return to the Nativity of Jesus at the start of Lent. After all, the season of Epiphany is over, and Christmastide has long since passed. But despite this seasonal weirdness, I think the Mattheian Nativity is a wonderful story to reflect on and pray with as we embark on our Lenten journey of contrition, penitence, and self-reflection.
Matthew’s retelling of the Nativity lacks many of the Christmas staples that our culture cherishes. In Matthew’s Gospel, no shepherds keep watch over their flocks of sheep by night, and no angels fill the sky with heavenly light and song. There is no crowded inn that warrants a sojourn in a stable, and no manger where the Christ-child must rest his swaddled head. But regardless, Matthew is a brilliant storyteller, and his account of the Nativity orients us perfectly at the beginning of his Gospel by exemplifying the nature of God, the ministry of Christ, the selfish sinfulness of humanity, and our ultimate calling as Christians.
Matthew uses the Nativity as an opportunity to draw a sharp dichotomy. We meet a king, Herod; we meet the King, Jesus; and we meet some kindly magi from the East who know the difference.
King Herod the Great was a greedy and selfish and murderous man, notoriously ruthless and known for savagely stamping out even slight rivals. In Matthew’s Gospel, when he learns from the wise men that the supposed King of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem, he becomes terrified at the thought of losing control, at the thought of his power slipping through his fingers, at the thought of a new age and a new authority. Herod wants desperately to stay on top.
His paranoia and avarice lead him down a dark path. He asks the wise men to return to him when they have found the Christ-child, ostensibly so he can pay Jesus homage. Herod’s true intention, however, is far from good. He means to kill the Christ-child and destroy any chance of a threat to his kingship, and when the wise men fail to return to him (thanks to a divine warning in a dream), Herod resorts to utter brutality: he orders the execution of every child in Bethlehem two years old or under. As a result of his desperate, obsessed striving for temporal dominance, Herod chooses destruction.
The reality of the Incarnation of God in our Savior Jesus stands in stark contrast to the violent reality of Herod’s reign. It is in King Herod’s nature to be self-interested; it is in King Jesus’ nature to be self-giving. God gives of God’s self endlessly. In an act of gracious and unfathomable love, God abandons the glorious and perfect robes of divinity to take up the lowly, sullied garb of humanity. God comes to us where we are. God meets the world humbly in all its brokenness and despite every dark and selfish deed committed by every Herod, God embraces us, chooses to love us, lives to serve us, and ultimately dies for us. God never stops giving God’s self away.
That relentless self-giving begins here in the Nativity, in the self-emptying act of divine incarnation. It is the same self-giving that is so beautifully articulated in a hymn included in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death—
Even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
And gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue should confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the Glory of God the Father.”
Unlike King Herod, God does not see power as a thing to be coveted or as a thing to be exploited ruthlessly for selfish ends. Rather, God’s power is a gift given away in humble, unimaginable love. It is this humble love that fills the wise men with reverence when they finally encounter the Christ-child in Bethlehem. And it is this humble love that they respond to by humbling themselves in turn, by kneeling in homage to Christ the Lord and giving Him kingly gifts.
We, like the wise men, are called to render ourselves lowly out of love. We are called to live like Jesus, and that means we have to give ourselves away.
With that, here are some questions for our Lenten reflection, to ponder as we assess are sinfulness and strive to live more fully the Gospel of Christ: What does realizing the radical, divine love of God look like for you, in your life, right now? How are you like King Herod, who grasps at every last drop of earthly power? How are you like King Herod, who acts out of savage self-interest? How are you like King Herod, who is too caught up in his world to pay attention to the love of God that flows perpetually? Who are you hurting with your selfishness? How can you become Christ to them? How can you humble yourself out of love for them just as God humbled God’s self out of love for us in the Incarnation?
As we march onward through this blessed season of Lent, and indeed, through the rest of our lives, I pray that we will remember the transformative lesson that the Nativity story teaches us.
The truest measure of glory is not the height of our selfish power but the depth of our loving humility.
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.