Sunday, 2 January 2022

Epiphany Sunday 2022: Paying homage


Matthew 2.1-12


“Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” the wise men ask, “for we observed his star at its rising and we have come to pay him homage.” That phrase “pay homage” comes three times in this story. Herod uses it, though we know he is lying. Then finally, at the end of the story the wise men find the child they’ve been looking for, and we’re told that, “They knelt down and paid him homage,” as they give him their gold, frankincense and myrrh.


But what does it mean?  Often we use it just to suggest admiration. The New Year’s honours list “pays homage” to people whose service we want to recognise, for example. But it’s a phrase which came to us originally from the medieval world of knights in shining armour, who had to “pay homage” to their Lord, kneeling before him to swear loyalty. The “hom” in “homage” comes from the Latin word for a person, “homo”. When a knight “paid homage” to his lord he was pledging his service to him, putting himself, life and limb, into his hands. He was saying “I’m your man. I belong to you. Where you tell me to go, I'll go, if you tell me to do something I'll do it.” 


So, in the Gospels, when the wise men see a new star in the sky, which they believe is the sign that the long-promised Jewish Messiah has been born, and come to pay homage to him, they aren't just coming out of curiosity or respect. They’re coming because they want to be part of his kingdom, the kingdom they’ve read about in the Old Testament prophecies: a kingdom of peace and justice. They want to be Christ’s men. They are declaring their allegiance, declaring who will rule their lives from now on.


But theirs isn’t the only homage being paid in this story. There are others who show whose people they are by the way they act, who they’re siding with. I’ve always been fascinated by the role of King Herod’s scribes in this story.  They know that something important has happened.  Visitors have arrived in Jerusalem, claiming that a new king has been born. Whether the scribes believe it or not, they should be sitting up and taking notice if they are at all serious about their study of the Hebrew scriptures.  They even know where this is supposed to be happening. ”Bethlehem, that's where he'll be”, they say to Herod.  Yet not one of them goes to Bethlehem to check it out. Do you know how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? About 5 miles or so.  A morning’s walk.  But they stay right where they are, in Jerusalem with Herod. They have to. They’re Herod's men. He’s the one they pay homage to. It’s his wishes they fall in line with, his words they obey, his view of reality that they’ve bought into. Perhaps they’ve done so out of fear, or perhaps they have been seduced by promises of status and wealth. Whichever it is, they’ve decided that they would rather stay on the right side of the devil they know, than risk looking for the Messiah they don't.


It’s a story that is both ancient and modern. It could have come from the court of any tyrant in history, or the boardrooms of any business run by a domineering boss, or the entourage of any celebrity with too much power and wealth for their own good. The dynamics at work have been amply illustrated this week as the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell came to its conclusion. She chose to throw in her lot with the abusive Jeffrey Epstein, enabling his abuse as she groomed and trafficked young teenage girls for him and his wealthy and powerful friends. And all those around them decided not to see, not to hear, not to challenge, not to report. They all paid Epstein homage. They declared themselves to be his men and women by doing this. And once you are in that sort of world; it’s very difficult to get out. “Sleep with dogs; wake up with fleas” as the saying goes.


Part of the tragedy of the story of tyrants like Herod or abusers like Epstein and Maxwell is that in the end, it all seems so pointless and joyless. However much “fun” there was to be had at the parties– and I put the word “fun” in inverted commas – however much glitz and glamour there is in this sort of world, it all comes threaded through with fear; the fear of discovery, the fear of repercussions, the fear of losing your place in the charmed circle if you step out of line.


The sordid story of Maxwell and Epstein was, for me, cast into even more stark a light because it came in the same week as the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The contrast couldn’t be greater. He had no power or status or wealth, and never sought them either. He was born in a poor family, in a country where the colour of his skin meant the dice would always be loaded against him. And yet, his life was rich with all the things that matter, with love, respect, and most of all joy. While the wealthy people who populated Epstein’s parties rejoiced in their power, Tutu said “We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy” and he added “If you are setting out to be joyful you are not going to end up being joyful. You’re going to find yourself turned in on yourself. It’s like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people.” (From the Book of Joy)  Tutu famously championed the philosophy known as ubuntu, an idea that is summed up in the phrase “a person is a person through other people” which says that the essence of being human is recognizing that we are connected to one another, and that what we do affects others as their actions affect us.


For Desmond Tutu ubuntu was at the heart of his faith. His commitment to loving connection with others, was rooted in and informed by his decision to pay his homage to Christ – to put his life into the hands of the child in the manger, the man on the cross. In Christ, he saw the God who commits himself to, and connects himself with, humanity, being born, suffering and dying with us. If God so loves us, how can we not love one another? If God is one of us, how can we not be one with each other? If God holds us all in his hands, we need to hold one another in our hands too? And if all that is true, then how can we discriminate, oppress and hate one another? 


The story of the wise men, the story of Desmond Tutu, and the story of Maxell and Epstein, all remind us that who we are is shaped in large part by whose we are, to whom or to what we pay homage.  Herods can come in many forms, but whenever we find ourselves giving a great deal of time or energy to something, or allowing it to rule our lives in some way that feels unhealthy, we need to ask, “ Is this a Herod?  Is it something genuinely worthwhile or is it something which draws me to it out of greed or fear?”  Jobs and hobbies can claim more of us than they should – turning from occupations to obsessions. Ideas and philosophies – including religion – can become tyrants. Roles which give us status can end up being allowed to define who we are and what we feel we are worth.


But this story tells us that there is one to whom we can rightly pay homage. There is one to whom we can rightly give our allegiance and our life. There is one who will take and use the gold, frankincense and myrrh which we bring him - those symbols of our resources of time and talents - for our good and the good of the world. Paying homage to him, putting our lives in his hands, will lead us to joy that nothing can take away from us.


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