The account from St. Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12) is rich, so rich that it requires symbols in order to carry its weight. Using the language of science or history or other secular sources simply cannot carry the burden of the message. The gravity of what is being carried is too heavy and the bridge would collapse. So, as always, it is only the language of art and poetry that can comprise a bridge built of symbols strong enough to carry the weight of the reality being conveyed.
Oh, we could waste time trying to figure out exactly who these mysterious kings, these magi, really were, how many of them came (notice that the bible doesn’t give you the number), where they came from, and so forth. And we could fret over the nature of the star and speculate about conjectures from the field of astronomy as to exactly what happened on that magical night. Was it a supernova? Was it a shooting star? But in the end we must simply agree with St. Augustine when he reminded us that “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The bible, we must again recognize, is not a book of astronomy, physics, biology or anthropology. It is a book of theology. It does not deal with “how?” questions. It deals with “why?’ questions, questions having to do with the purpose and meaning of events in our relationship with, and our understanding of, God.
With that perspective in mind, I turn now to this account from St. Matthew’s gospel and call your attention to the central word in his story, namely the word homage which is used three times in today’s gospel account. The movement and central point of this gospel passage revolves around “doing” or “paying” homage.
We moderns no longer recognize the meaning and purpose of homage. In earlier times it was a public act, a public acknowledgment of the submission of one’s self in allegiance to another. When one renders homage to another one enters into a commitment to engage in the purpose and mission of the other. Sub-mission means to be a part of a mission, part of a purpose. Perhaps the idea is strange to a people who see only self-affirmation and taking care of the needs of one’s self as their only purpose in life. Present-day Americans that we are, we tend to see only self enhancement, individual rights, self-affirmation, and self-esteem as essential, all else being merely optional and elective.
Homage was the reason and purpose of the quest of these magical kings. And to consummate their contract, to provide the money or the consideration to make their contract real and binding, they bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold symbolizes worldly power, incense symbolizes the mystery of God, and myrrh symbolizes the one thing we all share in common and which the Christ-child would profoundly share with us, death.
The shepherds represent the Israelites, the People of God of the Old Testament. Where the shepherds go, we follow, and with them come to recognize in the Christ Child, God’s Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah who fulfills all of the Old Testament’s prophecies and all of God’s promises repeatedly made to us since Adam and Eve’s great Fall. The Magi, the leaders of Gentile peoples, lead us likewise to the Savior of all of the world’s people. They come to do Him homage, bringing the whole world with them to give Him worship, the equivalent of homage.
We find the word homage likewise on the lips of King Herod, that wily, devious, lying monarch who, in claiming he also wants to give homage, is lying through his teeth. In reality, of course, his god is not the God of Abraham. Herod’s god is a pagan god named Power. And those who worship it are doomed to lie, cheat, and corrupt in order to have it. Tragically, they end up not possessing power but rather being possessed by it. This is so much so with Herod that he murders all the male babies under two years of age throughout the district surrounding Bethlehem. That event is known forever in infamy as the Slaughter of the Innocents. This was done in homage to appease the real god Herod worshipped — Power.
A couple of chapters later in St. Matthew’s gospel we hear the word again, this time on the lips of the devil himself who, in his third temptation of Christ out in the desert, generously offers Christ sovereignty over all of the kingdoms of this world (note that the devil has them – they are his to offer!) if only Christ would fall down and give him homage. Satan asks Christ to do what the Magi did at the manger, namely prostrate himself and do him homage.
Still later the first reported healing of Jesus came when a leper approached Him and did Him homage, saying: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” The pagan, non-Jewish Canaanite woman, whose daughter was tormented by a devil, falls down on her face in front of Christ and does Him homage, asking that He heal her daughter. Other instances follow. And finally, in the Garden of the Resurrection, we find Mary Magdalene embracing the feet of the Risen doing Him homage.
Often we hear the complaint, “I don’t go to Mass because I don’t get anything out of it.” Perhaps those who feel that way have forgotten the real reason for coming to Mass is to not to be entertained but to worship, to give honor, reverence, worship and homage, along with all other Christians who, from the very beginning, knew why they were coming into the presence of God. Did those who first came to Christ do so in order to get something, or in order to give their gifts to the Christ?
You are here today to give the Son of God gifts far more precious and superior than gold, frankincense and myrrh. You are here to give Him your love and devotion, your reverence and your respect, your worship, and your homage, to the King of all earthly kings. And as for “getting something out of Mass”, what could possibly surpass receiving His very own Body and His very own Blood?
Homage, honor, devotion, worship, respect and dedication – these are all things that seem to be rapidly disappearing from our darkening modern world and our own American culture. All the more precious, then, is your gift and your example to those around you who badly need to recover their own sense of giving homage and worship to the One who alone can save the world in which we live. Together now, may be joined in Christ’s mission in our world, following in the footsteps of the shepherds and the wise men of old.