Have you made your New Year’s resolution? Mine’s is to help all my friends gain twenty pounds, so I’ll look slimmer. And I decided to read more this year, so I put the subtitles on my TV. New Year’s Day is the accepted time to make our regular annual good resolutions; now, a week later we can begin paving hell with them as usual. What’s special about this time of the year that makes us the architects of our own downfall? Everyone knows that New Year’s Day is just a holiday created by calendar companies who don’t want us reusing last year’s calendar.
Yet despite all the ridicule of New Year resolutions many of us genuinely want to challenge ourselves. Either to quit some bad or unhealthy habits, or to achieve or learn something new. I’d say, ‘good luck with that’ and this time without even a hint of sarcasm. New Year is as good a time for a start as any other time of the year. A flop is part of the process; a failure reveals what must be addressed in your efforts. People who have achieved success in their efforts did it not because they progressed flawlessly from one achievement to another, but because they bounced back from their failures and used them as a springboard towards their ultimate goal.
In today’s gospel, there are a few people challenged in various ways. There are some wise men (St Matthew doesn’t specify their number) who undertook a long and dangerous journey from their homeland, presumably today’s Iraq, to find ‘the infant king of the Jews.’ Having travelled, the pagan, probably Zoroastrian priests arrive in Jerusalem as the most obvious place. It’s the Jewish capital city; the Temple, the Jewish centre of the universe is there. Where else can they find who they are looking for? Their arrival is a challenge to many residents of Jerusalem: why are those alien, pagan priests treading the hallowed ground of the Holy City? The wise men’s innocent inquiry challenges the incumbent monarch, king Herod. He never was confident of his royal position; he wasn’t of David’s line. Everyone in Judea knew that the throne belonged to an heir from the tribe of Juda, as the summoned chief priests and the scribes attested with a thinly veiled dig at the king. Herod deals with the potential challenger in an apparently decisive way, namely by ordering the killing of all male toddlers in the designated area. Chronologically the final challenge is the wise men’s. They have to revise their assumption that ‘the infant king of the Jews’ should be found in palatial surroundings in the capital city. Instead, they have to travel to a rather insignificant town of Bethlehem and then find their target in an unassuming house like many others.
In today’s gospel, we see different challenges as well as different reactions to those challenges.
King Herod sees the challenge to his reign and throne. His reaction is to remove it along with the challenger. He helps the wise men solely for his own ends. He ends up outmanoeuvred by them; enraged, he orders the killing. Somehow, he gives up on currying favour with his subjects, who would never embrace him as their rightful king.
The Jewish spiritual authorities – the chief priests and the scribes – seize the opportunity to mock and deride the usurper king, who should not have been sitting on the throne in the first place. They see Herod as the Roman puppet-king. They achieve nothing from such an opportunity; their animosity towards the king blinds them.
The wise men tenaciously plough on regardless of the hurdles, whether set by others or by their own misconceptions. To them, the challenges present opportunities either to bolster their resolve or to revise their opinions. Eventually, they achieved their goal, but they changed in the process. It seems they were the only ones in this story to make positive use of all their challenges, be they set by themselves or thrown at them by circumstances.
Although a bit of an artificial date, the beginning of the New Year presents itself as a great opportunity to make some plans, to set goals you’d like to achieve. But even if you don’t, in the spirit of ‘I’m not making any resolutions; that’s my resolution’ the days, weeks and months ahead will throw various challenges at you. How you will use them depends on you. Since I’m seeing many of you for the first time this year let me make you a wish: May all your troubles last as long as your New Year resolutions!