Sunday, January 08, 2017

The ‘Light’ of the Magi and the ‘Darkness’ of Herod

Jagger goes to the gallows.

(Epiphany 2017: This homily was given on January 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2017]

Light and darkness.  The contrast between those two realities is crystal clear in the story we just heard from Matthew 2—and in the verses that immediately follow this passage in Matthew’s gospel.  The “light” of the star that guided the Magi from their homeland (probably ancient Persia) to the Savior of the world in Bethlehem, stands in sharp contrast to the “darkness” that filled the heart of King Herod: a darkness—a hatred—which led him to murder a lot of people, including some members of his own family.

First, the light.  The journey of the Magi can be seen, from one perspective at least, as a metaphor for the Christian life.  The life of a disciple—a true disciple—of Jesus Christ is really a lot like the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem: it’s a journey to Jesus. It’s not always an easy journey; there are obstacles and difficult people (like Herod) that you have to deal with along the way.  But you don’t have to do it alone and without help!  As a baptized, Catholic Christian you have a “light”—the light of your Catholic Faith—to guide you safely to your destination, just like the Magi had the light of the star of Bethlehem to guide them on their way.  And if you follow that light of faith and persevere in your journey as these Magi persevered in theirs, it will be worth it in the end.  You will meet Jesus as they did; only not in a manger, but rather in his eternal kingdom!  As the priest used to say in the old opening prayer for the Mass of the Epiphany: “Father, you revealed your Son to the nations by the light of a star.  Lead us to your glory in heaven by the light of faith.”

Which brings us to the darkness—specifically the darkness of King Herod—which, as I said a few moments ago, filled his heart with hatred, and motivated him to kill a lot of innocent people, including the Holy Innocents.

His purpose in killing was usually to get rid of rivals: to get rid of any and all potential rivals to his throne.  That, of course, was why today’s gospel said that he was “greatly troubled” when the Magi told him that they were there to see the “newborn king of the Jews.”

If he were alive today and were evaluated by a modern-day psychologist or psychiatrist, I suspect that Herod would be diagnosed as a “paranoid psychopath”—or something along those lines.  After all, among the people he murdered were two of his own sons, his wife and his brother-in-law.

Now you know why Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, once made the remark that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than it was to be Herod’s son.

Which brings us, finally, to 2017.  What really has me concerned, my brothers and sisters, is that in our American society right now the “darkness of Herod” seems to be eclipsing the “light of the Magi.”  In other words, in many places and in so many ways hatred seems to be trumping faith these days.  And I use the word “trumping” there as a kind of pun, because nowhere has this been more evident to me in recent weeks than in the response of many of our cultural elites (and other people as well) to our new president-elect!

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican—it doesn’t matter whom you voted for in this past election—this kind of Herod-like vitriol that we’ve been hearing since November 8 ought to concern you.  It ought to concern everybody!  It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s policies, it’s quite another to use every four-letter word you can think of on social media to describe a man and his family—or to purposely engage in violent, hate-filled protests; or to beat and torture a mentally handicapped man, as those 4 young people in Chicago did last week!

And of course, our president-elect hasn’t always responded to others with charity and respect either—which has only compounded the problem.

The darkness of Herod, I’m sad to say, is enveloping our culture right now.  On this matter, and on many other issues.  Hopefully we are not contributing to it—and, if we have been contributing to it, hopefully by the grace of God we will stop, because no nation built on hatred can survive for very long.

The destructive power of hate was illustrated beautifully in an old Twilight Zone program that I saw the other day during the Syfy Network’s New Year’s Day Twilight Zone “marathon”.  In this particular episode a man named Jagger is to be hanged for murder.  He’s unrepentant, and filled with hatred toward the people of the town where he allegedly committed the crime—and by the same token the townspeople all hate him.  They can’t wait to see him strung up and hanging from a noose.  Then on the day of the execution something very strange happens: the sun doesn’t rise.  Darkness covers the town throughout the day—and deepens after Jagger is hanged.

The people can’t understand the reason for the phenomenon, until the local reverend steps forward and says that the sky is black because of hate—their hate—the hatred they’re holding onto in their hearts.

The episode then comes to a close when someone turns on the radio to hear the local news report.  The announcer says that the darkness is not only happening locally, it’s also being reported in other places around the country and around the world: North Vietnam, Dallas, Budapest, Chicago, Shanghai, etc.

The last word of the program, of course, as usual, goes to the creator of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling—and it’s a powerful one (so powerful that I’ll also make it the last word of my homily).  It gives us the message he wants us to take from the story, which is the same message I would like people to take from this homily.

Serling says:

A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don't look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.