Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kings False and True

Today in the United States we observe the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (which actually occurs on January 6). My son, who is in kindergarten, was one of the the Three Kings in the Christmas pageant, and today he got to reprise his role as one of the Kindergarten Kings (along with a Star-Bearer) who processed in at mass and then brought up the bread and wine for the Offertory.

So this week I've been thinking about kings, and what makes them true or false to their role, especially as compared to the King of Kings.

Let's start with today's gospel reading:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel." Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage." After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

We learn many things about true and false kings here. The King of Kings is born in poverty. He is called by the title that will appear on the placard that will hang above him on His cross during His crucifixion ("king of the Jews"). He is a shepherd-king, like his ancestor, David. The Magi are not said to be kings in the Gospel of Matthew, nor did the early Fathers indicate that they were kings (see the Catholic Encyclopedia). But they know how to treat a king, and they pay Jesus homage with gifts and, more importantly, prostrating themselves before Him. Today after mass, my daughter, who loves to prostrate herself in Eucharistic adoration, did so at the tabernacle, and she asked me to do the same. Usually, I save prostration for when I'm alone at the tabernacle, or there with only my family. But there were many people still around from mass. Yet, I took it as God asking me through my daughter to prostrate myself with her, so I did, and I was glad of it.

Herod, on the other hand, is our shining example of a false king. He lies about wanting to pay homage to the newborn king. He is only concerned about maintaining his own power. In the English medieval mystery plays, Herod was always portrayed as insanely angry all the time--the medieval version of someone in desperate need of anger management. As we know, Herod went on to slaughter male children under the age of two in Bethlehem--something no true king would do.

I think of the Third Sorrowful Mystery - the Crowning of Thorns. There, we have soldiers who serve an earthly king - Caesar - mocking Jesus by putting a crown of thorns on Him, giving him a reed for a scepter, and clothing Him with a purple robe, and then beating Him. The true king wears a crown of pain, unrecognized as king by those torturing Him. Then there is Jesus' encounter with Pilate. Pilate, an earthly ruler who condemns Jesus out of fear of the crowds and who contemptuously asks Jesus, "What is truth?" is a stark contrast to the true king before him, the king who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Herod and Pilate are intimidating figures in their day, but St. Paul reminds us that they do not have the last say:

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Corinthians 2:6)

The Wise Men who sought the Child Jesus possess a very different wisdom than Herod. And the wisdom that St. Paul imparts is a lasting one, although it is mocked by the powerful of this age. Mary, in her Magnificat, reminds us that God "has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree" (Luke 1:52). Mary is reiterating the same concept in Sirach: "The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers, and has seated the lowly in their place" (Sirach 10:14). The writer of Sirach reminds us that "the king of today will die tomorrow" (Sirach 10:10).

I am reminded of the wonderful poem, "Ozymandias," by the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, that reflects on a false king who let pride deform his kingship; his downfall serves as a reminder to us all of the limitations of power and self-interest and pride:


I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This false King of Kings, Ozymandias, came to nought. As the writer of Sirach says, "The Lord has overthrown the lands of the nations, and has destroyed them to the foundations of the earth. He has removed some of them and destroyed them, and has extinguished the memory of them from the earth" (Sirach 10:16-17). And why? Because "The beginning of man's pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the man who clings to it pours out abominations" (Sirach 10:12-13).

We need to realize that there is One true King, Jesus. But we also need to remember that as baptized Christians, we share in His kingship, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us in Lumen Gentium:

...all the faithful, that is, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are constituted the people of God, who have been made sharers in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and play their part in carrying out the mission of the whole Christian people in the church and in the world." (31)

Were we to fully understand our own participation in the Kingship of Christ, what an epiphany this would truly be.

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