The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the study: receiving the king with joy

From the study: receiving the king with joy

By: KAYA WEAVER

In a few weeks, GPA will share a preview of A Candy Cane Christmas, a ballet reflecting on the range of ways we can respond to Jesus’s coming at Christmas. In Matthew 2:1-13, King Herod and the magi also show different responses to the arrival of God’s kingdom.

1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days when Herod was king,

look! Magi from the east came into Jerusalem,

2 saying, “Where is the one born king of the Judeans?

For we saw his star when it rose and came to worship him.”

Matthew 2:1 signals a few important pieces of contextual information that help establish the power dynamics at play in this Christmas story. First, the narrator establishes the timeframe: Herod is king in Judea, ruling the Jewish people as part of imperial Rome (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1749). Herod is a powerful figure, commanding honor and obedience. Second, a group of “magi” pay this king a visit. These magi are non-Israelite priests whose knowledge grants them access to powerful people but whose predictions can be destabilizing (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1750). Within this context, it’s not surprising that the first words the magi speak to Herod suggest that his position in Judea is contested. The magi state their intention to worship a “king of the Judeans” who is not Herod, and he perceives a threat to his power (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1750). The magi are passing over Herod, who sees himself as king of the Judeans, to offer their allegiance to a child.

3 But when King Herod heard, he was disturbed, 

and all Jerusalem with him…

Accordingly, Herod feels “disturbed,” and others in the city are troubled as well. There are Jewish religious leaders with Herod who have allied themselves with Rome, so a threat to the stability of Rome is also a threat to their own power (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1750).

4 and gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people,

he inquired of them, “Where is the anointed one to be born?”

5 And they said to him, “In Bethlehem in Judea,

for thus it was written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means small among the rulers of Judah, 

for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Herod may not know the answer to the magi’s question, so he turns to the religious leaders and scholars of the Judean people. The priests and scribes cite Micah 5:2 as confirmation that the Jews do indeed anticipate a ruler to arise from among their own people. Their Scripture reference subtly highlights the significance of these foreign priests seeking to worship Jesus, because in Micah 4:1-2 the prophet says that “many nations” will come to learn wisdom from Yahweh. Yet the Jewish priests and scribes don’t seem to make the connection themselves that they should seek this ruler in Bethlehem now (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1750), and they simply supply the information Herod and the magi are looking for. 

7 Then Herod, secretly calling the magi, 

inquired of them in detail the time when the star appeared.

8 And when he sent them to Bethlehem he said,

“When you go, demand carefully about the child,

and whenever you find him, report to me, 

so that I too, when I go, may worship him.”

Rather than allow the scribes and chief priests to interact directly with the magi–perhaps fearing they would exchange information that could further threaten to destabilize his position–Herod continues to act as intermediary, conveying the religious leaders’ answer to the magi’s inquiry and adding his own commands. Herod tries to remain in command of the situation by co-opting the magi, who thus far seem willing to trust him. Herod claims his interests are aligned with the magi’s interests, saying he too intends to worship this new “king of the Judeans.” But Herod’s claim doesn’t match up with his disturbed feeling and secrecy, and readers might guess that he actually has other designs.

9 So, having listened to the king, they left, 

and look! The star, which they’d seen at its rising, went ahead of them, 

until, since it arrived, it stood before the place where the child was.

10 And when they saw the star they rejoiced with very great joy.

11 And when they went into the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother,

and they fell down and worshiped him, 

and opening their treasure chests they gave him gifts:

gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The magi follow Herod’s direction to Bethlehem, and when they find the child, they express “very great joy,” a stark contrast to Herod feeling “disturbed” at the news. Fulfilling their stated intention “to worship him” (v. 2), the magi take a humble posture in Jesus’s presence and offer him gifts. Precious metal and fragrant gums might seem like strange gifts for a small child, but gold, frankincense and myrrh are valuable trade commodities and items that are useful in rituals for worshiping God, honoring living individuals, and burying the dead (The Anchor Bible Dictionary). These gifts show that the magi recognize Jesus as someone worthy of great honor and someone who will play an important role in the story of his people.

12 But since they were divinely warned by a dream not to return to Herod,

they returned to their land by another path.

Though the magi listened to Herod earlier, they are willing to disregard his command when a new, divine source directs them to avoid Herod. This suggests that their allegiance lies outside of Rome, providing further evidence that the threat Herod perceives is genuine, but also bolstering the sense of hope that a new king has come who is more powerful than Rome. Mihee Kim-Kort, commenting on this passage in The Christian Century, writes that the story is structured to show how Herod is ready to “annihilate any glimmer of God’s salvation at hand,” while at the same time indicating that God’s salvation is indeed at hand to resist “such systems of violence.” The divine power associated with the child Jesus holds more sway than Herod holds over this group of foreign priests; maybe this child from this small clan of Judah will shepherd God’s people with greater peace and justice than Rome.

13 But after they departed, 

look! A messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, 

saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, 

and stay there until I tell you;

for Herod is about to pursue the child to destroy him.”

The Lord’s messenger to Joseph reveals that Herod’s true intention is not to worship this child but to destroy him. Feeling threatened by the appearance of another person whom foreign sages travel to see and worship while brushing aside Herod himself, Herod finds it necessary to get rid of the child who draws honor and allegiance away from Herod. The story’s conclusion highlights the difference between Herod’s response and the magi’s, revealing the range of possibilities in how people might respond to Jesus coming to be king of the Jews. Some, like Herod, might see Jesus as a threat and resist him with force. Others might humble themselves like the magi, going, worshiping, and giving honor and gifts.

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GPA’s ballet A Candy Cane Christmas tells another story about power dynamics and a range of responses to Christmas. Commanding everyone’s attention is Princess Adele, who assumes that her royal position affords her the right to the best gift at Christmas. Like the religious leaders who ally themselves with Herod, most of Princess Adele’s subjects entertain her prideful streak, bringing the best Christmas gift each one can find in hopes of currying favor and earning an invitation to her Christmas day celebration. Like Herod, Princess Adele is troubled when an unexpected guest brings something that challenges her sense of self-importance.

Natasha, a working-class seller of candy canes, offers Princess Adele a gift with symbolism that undermines her existing value system. The peppermint fragrance of Natasha’s candy canes evokes the story of the magi in Matthew 2 and the gifts they offer to Jesus to honor him as the king of Israel. Natasha offers Princess Adele a candy cane and invites her to respond differently than King Herod–to rejoice at the coming of the true king and to exercise humility and generosity in his presence.

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Join GPA in a few weeks for a virtual preview of A Candy Cane Christmas, along with other Christmas arts activities and biblical reflections!

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Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.

Secondary references:

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003).

The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by D.N. Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

“January 6, Epiphany of the Lord (Matthew 2:1-12),” by Mihee Kim-Kort, in The Christian Century (online: December 19, 2019).

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