Summary: God loved us so much that He acted against His own best self-interest, by becoming human. In doing this, He exactly contradicted the secular world's view of leadership and government.

Epiphany 2012

Against His Own Self-Interest

Spirit of the Liturgy

One of the insights that Pope Benedict has shared with us over the past few years continually comes to mind when I read the Gospels. It is like a unifying theme of the Scriptures. God loves us so much that he does things for us that are against His own self-interest. That’s another way of expressing what I used to call the “NFL endzone Scripture”: John 3:16. God so loved the world that He gave us His only-begotten Son, so that all who believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. We hear it over and over again at Mass and especially in the Divine Office: from Philippians chapter 2, in my own paraphrase: Christ Jesus was in the form of God, but thought holding on to the dignity and equality of God wasn’t enough. So he poured Himself out, took the form of a slave, and became human, truly human. Even more, he humbled Himself and became obedient to death–the worst sort of death–because of which God raised Him on high and gave Him the name above every other name–and He earned it.

Today’s Scripture and its aftermath shows that reality in gold and incense, frankincense and sweat, radiant smiles and unexpressible terror. Here are the two personalities–set at opposite extremes of humanity. On the one hand, we see Herod the Great, self-possessed tyrant whose whole life was set in the pursuit of power and pleasure. He was called “King of the Jews” by the Romans, and to keep that crown, he stopped at nothing. His paranoia about his position was so deep that he even murdered his wife to keep it. So when he heard about some baby pretender to the throne being born, and found out where the child was and about how old, he first put together a simple plot to follow up these Magi and descend on the Holy Family and probably kill all of them. Then, when the Magi escaped, he ordered all the boys–toddlers and younger–to be destroyed, just to get at the one child. I recall a TV show many years ago about the Herod plot. Dying himself, Herod ordered the curtains to be pulled back so he could see the Star of Bethlehem. When asked why, the bloody autocrat said, “I want to see the Light go out.”

The Light didn’t go out, because the helpless infant at the other end of the spectrum was living out the plan of the Father to redeem the world. Magi and angels and family worked together to rescue Him and take Him to Egypt for a short time, and then back to Nazareth. None of this was easy. The contrast with Herod and Herod’s successors was stark. The power, the honor, the ease of life was all with the secular rulers. People fell all over themselves to tell them how great they were. Slaves did their every bidding. For Herod, they built multiple palaces and the great fortress of Masada.

Jesus, on the other hand, became a nothing carpenter’s apprentice in an obscure hamlet–Nazareth–that was so tiny it doesn’t even have an archeological site. For another thirty years he labored for His family in obscurity. Then, in a remarkable series of events–baptism at the Jordan by John, a wedding feast at Cana, a speaking tour of Galilee, He began to preach and heal the sick and disabled. He gathered disciples, attracted by the healing and the free bread and fish. He told them about the kingdom of God, that would begin as a real assembly–a church–in this life. But He told them, too, that there would be a price for Himself and His followers. They would be nourished by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Many turned from that sermon on what we now call the Eucharist. He said that He would be arrested and tortured and murdered, and that the same thing could happen to His followers. Many turned away from that sermon. In the end, only a handful were with Him–His mother, the teenager John, and a few faithful women. The power of the chief priest and the Roman procurator and the current Herod, incensed by this threat to their own authority, terrified by His love for the poor and marginalized, incapable of understanding the divine plan, came down on Jesus like an avalanche.

But God raised Him up out of the rubble. He gathered again His key disciples and forgave them. Moreover, He gave these men, these apostles, the authority to forgive sins, and ordain others to do the same. He gave them this sacrament, this Eucharist, to nourish and strengthen and heal our weakness. He told them to spread this news, found this community, among all nations, baptizing them–in a sense marinating them–in His own reality. Within forty years of His resurrection, the Church had spread all over the Roman empire and beyond, nations walking by the light, not of a star, but of a God-man. All of them became co-heirs of the kingdom of God, and sons and daughters of God themselves. That is the reality we celebrate today. We, too, are called to act against our own best interests, in the interest of others, to pour ourselves out in love and service so that others may not perish, but have everlasting life.

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